The Florida criminal trial of George Zimmerman for the shooting of a young black teenager named Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, on February 26, 2012 is over. The jury of six Seminole County women voted not guilty on the count of murder in the second degree and on manslaughter. While this trial is over, the effort to find justice for Trayvon Martin's family is just turning a corner.
Trayvon was killed because he was profiled. Zimmerman shot Trayvon just as the Florida prosecutor suggested, not because he had to, but because he wanted to. We have yet to hear from the jurors as to their view of the evidence and why they found reasonable doubt. It may have been because the prosecutors' failed to disprove Zimmerman's self-defense claims or because they failed to prove the elements of murder in the second degree or manslaughter. No matter, it is another family of a young black person who must now live their lives trying to build a legacy for their deceased relative or friend that will stand for justice and equal treatment under the law.
Many will say that the criminal justice system failed Trayvon. That it didn't work. That the American criminal justice just won't allow for a non-black defendant to be convicted of killing a black victim, especially if the defendant is a law enforcement officer or a person in a related circumstance as Zimmerman was in his role as a neighborhood watch volunteer. Remember, Sanford law enforcement had no intention of even filing charges against George Zimmerman. They had used their police discretion to decide that they had no probable cause to believe that Zimmerman had done anything criminal or anything that was outside the boundary of the "Stand Your Ground" laws of Florida. It took the determination of Trayvon's family to seek out advocates who would make the case to Florida authorities that justice demanded a full and complete investigation of Zimmerman's actions and an arrest and prosecution if those actions provided probable cause to believe that a crime was committed. The family did that and Florida authorities responded. Zimmerman was arrested and prosecuted.
Many may yet argue that the family should not have cooperated with a state-level prosecution, since the belief by so many was that Zimmerman's actions were motivated by the race of Trayvon Martin. That Zimmerman profiled Martin, followed Martin and engaged Martin all with the purpose of ensuring that another black "punk" or black thug not get away. Any federal charges against Zimmerman would have to be brought under the "hate crime acts," and would have to establish that Zimmerman caused the death of Trayvon Martin willfully, with a firearm, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion or national origin of Trayvon Martin. The Justice Department would have to further certify that the Florida verdict left demonstratively unvindicated the federal interest in eradicating bias-motivated violence, or that such prosecution was in the public interest and necessary to secure substantial justice.
In 2013, every American should be entitled to secure substantial justice. The public should be substantially confident that the efforts to secure justice, particularly in controversial matters, were unequivocally sought. We have witnessed so many situations throughout the history of this nation where the honest and forthright belief was that the life of black individuals did not require an all-out effort to do the right thing. Black life simply was not valued in such manner. Just in the last several years we have witnessed the horrific deaths of Oscar Grant in Oakland, Calif.; Sean Bell and Fermin Arzu in New York City; and Kendrick Johnson in Valdosta, Ga.; where legitimate and genuine issues of the failure of the state criminal justice system was unmistakably present and the federal government did not intervene. What is the value of Trayvon's life and does it not require further criminal investigation to ensure that his citizenship has meaning and substance as a matter of federal public policy.
So many have now commented that the ever-present dangers for young blacks and Hispanics will be further heightened if the actions of George Zimmerman are allowed to stand without further challenge. That states that have the "Stand Your Ground" laws become ever more dangerous. That the gun violence that plagues urban American in the form of "black on black" shootings will just continue to be unmitigated because there simply will be no significant federal response to these grave threats to such a substantial part of our nation. Let's not forget that even in the aftermath of the tragedy of the shooting of school children in Newtown, Conn., you had such powerful forces like the NRA ensuring that the federal government did nothing to strengthen our gun laws and accelerate a federal effort on ridding urban areas of illegal weapons trafficking. If the federal government seeks to move forward with a prosecution of George Zimmerman, you will see the full force of the gun lobby and many others in opposition. Our communities must be ready to make themselves heard once again.
Trayvon Martin is dead! Long Live Trayvon Martin and the fight for justice and equal treatment under the law. The time is now, the cause is right. Justice must be pursued if our humanity is to be fully valued and protected.
Michael A. Hardy, Esq. is General Counsel and Executive Vice-President to National Action Network (NAN). He has been involved in many of this nation's highest profiled cases involving violations of civil or human rights. He continues to supervise National Action Network's crisis unit and hosts a monthly free legal clinic at NAN New York City's House of Justice.