For just a moment the very words hung in the air of the courtroom, stunning everyone into silence.
Across the country, people scrambled to their televisions or iPhones to hear or see the words for themselves.
The full weight of what the jury had done began to sink in as George Zimmerman accepted a pat on the shoulders and a firm handshake from his lawyers, while the prosecutors gathered up their papers and the attorneys representing the family of Trayvon Martin hurried from the courtroom.
“Not guilty.” It was not an outcome that many expected. If the jury did not render a verdict for second-degree murder, surely a conviction on manslaughter would be applicable. Not so. A 17-year-old has been senselessly killed and his killer is not legally accountable. Seriously?
There’s no doubt that this jury verdict is a very bitter pill to swallow. Lest we forget, it took protests, online petitions and over six weeks to even get an arrest for the unnecessary killing of an unarmed teenager (unless you consider those Skittles he was carrying a dangerous weapon).
“Not guilty.” During the course of Zimmerman’s trial, it became apparent Trayvon Martin was also on trial. The prosecution set the bar high from the beginning by charging Zimmerman with second-degree murder. You get no brownie points for overcharging a defendant, especially when you fail to meet the elements required to turn the charge into a conviction. So as the case started to come together, the prosecution put on witness after witness who sounded more like witnesses for the defense than the prosecution.
Moreover, while there was no evidence presented that would support a violation of Trayvon’s civil rights or that this was a hate crime as defined by federal statute (which will make the Justice Department’s investigation difficult at best), there was more than one opportunity for the prosecution to press the point that Zimmerman had “profiled” and “stalked” Trayvon Martin, but even here the prosecution was unable to nail the argument.
“Not guilty.” The defense, on the other hand, seemed more than capable of making the argument that somehow Trayvon was responsible for the tragic encounter that evening. By the trial’s end, the prosecution had left the door open on the perception that Trayvon Martin must have done something to contribute to his death.
Why didn’t he just run the other way or call the police? Zimmerman’s defense team effectively put the burden of avoiding the confrontation on Trayvon Martin thereby revealing an ugly truth: to be a black man in America means the burden is on you to prove you are not a threat.
“Not guilty.” So Trayvon Martin’s family and the rest of the country are left with a legal versus moral conundrum. Even accepting that the law applied to the facts presented at this trial has led to this particular result, we are left feeling that somehow the morality of having a 17-year-old kid killed for doing nothing more than putting on a hoodie, purchasing some Skittles from the store and walking home has to be addressed. What gnaws at us is the overwhelming feeling that the law has failed us; but more importantly, that there is no moral closure.
Trayvon Martin, for being 17 years old, black and a victim of a moral injustice: Guilty.
Michael Steele is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and is an MSNBC political analyst. Follow him on Twitter at @Steele_Michael.