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Saturday, October 1, 2016

Twenty years ago, I wrote a book called Widow’s Web about two politically charged, media-driven murder cases. The subject was all anybody in Arkansas talked about for a couple of years. The book documented how an audience worked into a frenzy by a histrionic murderer with big blue eyes, a publicity-mad county sheriff and slipshod, sensational media coverage helped to compound a tragedy by ruining a good man’s life.

I can still remember my astonishment upon realizing that front page trial coverage in the state’s leading newspaper depicted not the actual testimony and crime scene photos, but an imaginary scenario calculated to cast suspicion on the victim’s husband. Media accounts also falsely depicted a man who lost everything due to his wife’s death as inheriting a fortune.

“It was the popular thing to believe,” one Little Rock detective told me. “You could ask the ladies under every hair dryer in every beauty shop in Arkansas if McArthur was involved, and they’d say yes. They didn’t have to know a thing about the case. They just knew.”

And they were completely deluded.

Writing the book was a life-changing experience. I’ve never read a newspaper or watched a TV news program the same way since—particularly not about a homicide trial.

For the record, that’s where I’m coming from regarding the George Zimmerman- Trayvon Martin murder trial in Florida—a lamentable tragedy of errors marketed as a multimedia morality play on the combustible theme of race. It makes me crazy to see what I call the Mighty MSNBC Art Players and other media figures fictionalize, dissemble and play fast and loose with facts. The case is troubling enough without turning the participants into political symbols.

For example, I don’t care how many times you hear that Zimmerman defied police orders not to get out of his truck and “stalked” Trayvon Martin like a rabbit hunter. There’s no evidence that happened. By the time the dispatcher suggested “we don’t need you to do that, OK?” he’d been walking for some time. His story is that he was returning to the vehicle when the kid confronted him.

Maybe so, maybe not. But there’s scant evidence to the contrary.

  • sigrid28

    Maybe race has emerged as a factor in coverage of the Trayvon Martin case because, at its onset, local law enforcement and the Florida justice system failed miserably to fulfill their proper roles. Into this lapse of professionalism stepped the media to inflame passions that were already running high along racial lines.

    With the media frenzy banging on, the trial itself seems plagued by the some of the same provincialism and carelessness that stirred up tensions in the first place. At the crime scene, the M.E. failed to bag the victim’s hands. In the morgue, the victim’s clothing, packaged in plastic instead of paper, mildewed before it could be examined for DNA evidence and gunshot residue. Tapes were played for the Martin family without police present. At trial, the key was lost to the evidence room holding up proceedings for an hour. The defense opened with an inappropriate joke. The preparation of witnesses was laughably uneven. They cam in either totally unprepared or over-prepared, even scripted. then, to the horror of everyone, some were attacked in the social media. For all concerned, the prospect of the trial’s outcome being FAIR is what is at stake. We dread watching as the trial fails to do what it is designed to do–what it must do–if it is to fulfill its function.

    “In the absence of the state, or when states are weak, the individual becomes engulfed within the collective groups on which people must rely to advance their goals and vindicate their interests. Legal history and comparative law reveal that without the authority of the state, a host of discrete communal associations rush to fill the vacuum of power. And for most of human history, the primary such group has been the extended family, the clan. . . . Left to their own devices, humans tend to live under clan rule.”

    This paragraph from “The Paradox of Individualism” by Mark S. Weiner, a professor at Rutgers School of Law, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Chronicle Review (April 5, 2013) explains the phenomena Gene Lyons laments, and rightly so. We could look at the way the nation has divided along clan lines as a paradigm for a future with the kind of impotent government Republicans, especially the libertarians among them, say they want. When government failed the Trayvon Martin family, George Zimmerman, and Sanford, Florida, individual liberty did not rise full-blown from the sea like Venus on a half shell. No indeed. All parties just retreated to their own corners, like lobsters in the fish tank at the seafood counter or prize fighters taking their corners in the ring, they know each other well and are prepared to go another round.

  • disqus_ivSI3ByGmh

    Looking at the media circus they are calling a trial, one thing definitely sticks out. There is no way the defense could have come up with better witnesses for Zimmerman than the ones called as prosecution witnesses. I have never seen or heard a group of witnesses who could contradict themselves every other sentence like they do.
    So far the state has come no where near proving a case for Murder 2, and I doubt they have presented sufficient of a case for Manslaughter, either!

  • Allan Richardson

    Whether or not George Zimmerman set out to stalk Trayvon Martin because of his dark skin (or for any other reason), and whether or not Trayvon Martin attacked George Zimmerman because he was sick and tired of being “surveilled” by white people wherever he went (or for any other reason), we have no way of knowing. After failing to gather enough evidence while the evidence was there to gather, the law will reach its best possible conclusion in this imperfect trial.

    In the long run, what would make Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s ordeal not be in vain is to look at the social assumptions built into the “unwritten law” followed unconsciously by police and citizens who look at others from a police officer’s point of view, AND the social assumptions of both black and white communities in the way they view each other. Out of personal tragedies CAN come greater understanding if the majority of each group can communicate honestly and openly, and open up to the wisdom of a higher power (whether named God, Jesus, Allah, Buddha, or simply Spirit) and see others as equal in Spirit to themselves.

  • Chris B

    Teenage bravado?! Where’s the evidence of that, Mr. Lyons? And if you don’t call it “stalking,” what do you call it when a self-deputized male with a chip on his shoulder decides to follow a guy he mistakenly presumes to be a criminal? With a gun in his possession, no less?! If Martin felt threatened, he had every reason to. And even if he did attack this strange man who was following him, why wouldn’t that be considered self-defense? If I turn the tables on a mugger and break his nose, that doesn’t give him the right to claim self-defense if he shoots me dead. Zimmerman was told not to follow and did anyway, because of which an innocent young man is dead. So, please Mr. Lyons, spare us your false-equivalency.

    • sigrid28

      Excellent point.

  • pm1

    Trayvon Martin was casing working peoples homes, so he could rob them. There is no other explanation for his actions. George Zimmerman, a hard working, gainfully employed resident, reported him. Martin noticed GZ watching him. He walked towards GZ, with his hand in his waistband, and stared right at GZ, as GZ talked to the police. GZ reported this as it happened. A full Six minutes later, there was a confrontation. The location of the confrontation was a one minute casual walk from where Martin was spotted looking into working peoples homes. It seems funny that a ‘scared’, 17 year old, long-legged Black male, that was ‘being followed, and stalked, by a ‘racist vigilante’, “Creepy Assed Cracker”, had only managed to run, a mere one minute’s casual walking distance away, before being caught by an over-weight, 5′ 7″ murderer.

    Yeah, Trayvon was running scared. LOL! “That’s retarded, sir”.