Zimmerman lawyer: Race is not the ‘elephant in the room’ in Trayvon Martin case

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Trayvon Martin

Trayvon Martin, at left, captured on surveillance video at a Sanford, Florida 7/11 on the day he was killed; an image widely circulated on pro-George Zimmerman blogs; and at right, in a black and white photo that has become iconic after his death. (Photo at right supplied by the Martin family. Photo at left from the evidence released by the State Attorney's Office prosecuting George Zimmerman.)

George Zimmerman’s lawyer says race is “not the elephant in the room” in the Trayvon Martin case.

Mark O’Mara made the statement in a blog post on the GZLegalCase website, on which his team is chronicling their defense of the 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer who shot Martin, 17, to death on February 26th.

He was responding to an interview Martin family attorney Ben Crump gave to the Orlando Sentinel, in which Crump said in response to a question about whether the case is about race:

“It shouldn’t be about race. But race is the elephant in the room. Nobody believes that if you make Trayvon Martin white [and the Neighborhood Watch volunteer black], there’s no way he would not be arrested, and that’s the unfortunate and tragic truth of the matter. There is a double standard. That’s why race is involved in this case.”

To that, O’Mara writes:

Let’s forget for a moment that George Zimmerman is Hispanic, not white. What Mr. Crump is saying is that race is an issue in the George Zimmerman case because, he insists, that if a black man shot a white person in a similar situation, the black man would have been immediately arrested. This is not an indictment of George Zimmerman; this is fundamentally an accusation that the Sanford Police Department acted in a racist way, and that perhaps the criminal justice system at large is biased against black men.

The truth is that there is credible evidence that black men are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, and that is evidence of an underlying problem. Mark O’Mara and Don West have each spent a career in criminal defense fighting against racial bias in the justice system that affected many of their clients. This is something that needs to be discussed as a nation, and if this case has brought that conversation to the forefront, then now is the time to have that conversation.

Mr. Crump is right in talking about the George Zimmerman case when he says: “It shouldn’t be about race.” But by projecting race onto the George Zimmerman case, Mr. Crump is pinning a supposed civil rights victory on a Zimmerman conviction. The problem is that by associating a Zimmerman conviction with a civil rights victory, Mr. Crump has framed a scenario where a Zimmerman victory in a Self-Defense Immunity Hearing or a Zimmerman acquittal will represent a civil rights defeat. That is inappropriate and dangerous to us as a nation.

The Zimmerman defense team is not arguing against civil rights. We are defending a man who claims he shot and killed an attacker in necessary self-defense. If Mr. Crump believes that the Sanford Police Department acted with bias during their investigation, then he should demand a comprehensive conclusion from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), which conducted an exhaustive investigation into the matter of whether SPD conducted a proper investigation. If Mr. Crump believes that George Zimmerman’s actions were racially motivated, he should demand a comprehensive conclusion from the FBI, which conducted an exhaustive investigation on whether there is evidence that George acted with a racial bias. In that request, we join him.

Indeed, in many ways the Martin case has become a referendum on the disparate treatment of white and non-white defendants under various versions of the “Stand Your Ground” law around the country. The fact that black defendants appear so unsuccessful in availing themselves of self-defense arguments when compared to white defendants, at least anecdotally (since most states attorneys offices have been reticent about releasing statistics regarding the race of defendants using Stand Your Ground defenses) along with the experiential evidence of most black Americans, has led to the conclusion that the failure to arrest Zimmerman had at lest something to do with his and Martin’s race.

But O’Mara is arguing something more than that. He is saying that race is excluded from the case because Zimmerman is partly Hispanic, as if that inoculates him from even the discussion of racial bias. The fact that Hispanic people can harbor racial bias too, seems to have been lost in his argument about to whom Crump should direct his accusations.

The fact is, it is the prosecutors, not just Crump and the Martin family, who have alleged that George Zimmerman profiled Trayvon Martin based on Martin’s appearance, which includes his dress (a hoodie), his behavior (which Zimmerman decided looked “suspicious” to him) and yes, his race.