No sooner had the jury’s verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial been announced than a journalist friend posted on my Facebook page: “If it weren’t such a tragic case, I’d forgive you for feeling smug.”
Maybe I should have felt insulted. But I’ve got a thick skin. Besides, my friend doesn’t know me very well. I reminded her that I’d described the case as “a lamentable tragedy of errors marketed as a multimedia morality play on the combustible theme of race.” Absolutely nothing good could come of it.
And nothing has. Inchoate public reaction to the entirely predictable not guilty verdict has only confirmed that view.
To me, the most poignant moment of the trial came when defense attorney Mark O’Mara questioned Tracy Martin, the victim’s father. Many pundits said the lawyer had made a terrible mistake. I thought otherwise. At issue was whose voice could be heard screaming for help on a neighbor’s 911 call that recorded the fatal shot—an unbearable thing for any father to hear.
Tracy Martin’s great dignity, sincerity and terrible sorrow ended up underscoring two points Zimmerman’s lawyers badly wanted to make. First, when he’d initially heard the 911 tape, he hadn’t recognized his son’s voice. Whether he’d said it definitely wasn’t Trayvon’s voice, as police said, or that he simply couldn’t be sure, as he testified, wasn’t as significant as his uncertainty.
Second, Tracy Martin’s change of heart came about only after political interference by Sanford’s mayor caused the tape to be played for the entire Martin family simultaneously—sure to affect their individual perceptions, but minimizing the usefulness of their testimony.
Equally important was the implied message O’Mara sent to the jury: that although a trial is an adversarial procedure, Tracy Martin was not the Zimmerman team’s enemy. They respected his grief, they trusted him to be truthful, and they didn’t fear his testimony. Rather, it was the prosecution that ended up looking as if there were aspects of the story they didn’t want told. Not a critical moment perhaps, but a telling one.
As a father of sons, I felt great empathy for Tracy Martin. Like the jurors, however, I also thought he was probably mistaken about the voice on the 911 tape. Common sense says it’s more likely the guy getting his head pounded into the sidewalk crying out for help than the guy doing the beating.
But then I saw the case as a tragic collision between two confused, frightened strangers rather than a melodrama pitting good against evil. Once a feverish, opportunistic media campaign to depict the crime as the racial atrocity of the century got underway, keeping a clear mind took effort. Debunking the incendiary falsehoods promulgated on MSNBC alone—seemingly at the behest of the Martin family lawyers—could fill several columns.