The not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman hit home for one law professor because the case reminded her of her son being stopped by police as he walked home from the University of Dayton in the early 1990s.
“One son was stopped so many times that I ultimately had to go in and talk to the chief of police and said this has got to stop,” said Vernellia Randall, professor of law emeritus at UD. “Walking home at night is not suspicious. The only thing that makes it suspicious is that he was black and in Oakwood… . I began to be fearful that him being 19, he would get angry one of these times.”
The reaction of experts and residents to the verdict was mixed, mostly along racial lines.
Randall and UD Law Professor Tom Hagel both thought prosecutors overreached in going for a second-degree murder charge in the Feb. 26, 2012, death of Trayvon Martin instead of concentrating on manslaughter, which was included in the jury’s instructions as an alternative.
“I wasn’t shocked but I was a little surprised just due to the dynamics of this case,” Hagel said. “I thought there was a strong chance they’d find (Zimmerman) guilty of manslaughter, but I was not shocked because both sides had a pretty good argument for their positions.”
Not long after the verdict was announced, Dayton’s Monica Hockett said: “I think it’s some bull. He should have been found guilty because he killed that little boy for no reason, basically.”
Beavercreek’s Ryan Bevins said: “I feel like it never should have gone to trial. I just don’t think they had enough to go with, that’s kind of my initial reaction,” he said. “I think it could have a lot of different ways. To get a not guilty (verdict) doesn’t really shock or surprise me whatsoever. I think a lot of people were going on emotion but the law is what it is.”
Hagel said Zimmeramn’s actions — following Martin under the guise of being a neighborhood crime-watch volunteer — must be kept separate from when Martin allegedly had Zimmerman pinned and slammed his head on the pavement.
“My guess is (Zimmerman) was acting wrongfully at the beginning, but at the time of the killing, did Zimmerman have a right to use deadly force from what he perceived to be the imminent threat of seriously bodily harm or death?” Hagel said. ‘(Martin) was beating him. I salute the jury. I think they really thought this thing through.”
Kennith Inskeep of Indianapolis, in Dayton visiting family, said the verdict wasn’t fair. “I feel justice wasn’t served,” he said “An unarmed kid, a teenager, slain, another life lost. I think that was kind of foul. Not even a manslaughter, no conviction. It’s cut and dried. He wasn’t armed.”
Randall said the racial aspect of the situation couldn’t be ignored and she said Judge Debra Nelson erred by not allowing more discussion about the reasonableness of Zimmerman following Martin, contrary to neighborhood watch instructions. She said common law used to allow for deadly force in self-defense but asked people to escape if possible.
“Stand your ground turns on its head everything we have known about self-defense,” Randall said. “Why would they allow people to be the aggressor and then be able to use deadly force after he was losing a fight he started?
“What the Florida law does is authorize people to act on their biases and prejudices and stereotypes because they can say they were fearful of what this person was going to be doing.”
Hagel said a majority of states allow deadly force even if escape is an option, though he’s not sure if Zimmerman could have escaped while pinned to the pavement. “You can stand your ground and use deadly force even though you could have got away,” Hagel said. “That’s where the big controversy comes in.”
Randall’s son, Tshaka, who was stopped by police while walking home from UD to his Oakwood home in the early 1990s, is now an assistant professor of law at Florida A&M University.
“He wonders to what extent did George Zimmerman having a gun made him more brave than he would have been had he not have a gun,” Vernellia Randall said. “Would he have even confronted that kid if he didn’t have that gun?”
Randall said she’s always been against guns, but feels maybe she should advise her sons to be armed: “If everybody’s going to pack a gun and pull it out and shoot, pull yours out and shoot, too.”