LOS ANGELES — In reaction to George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the Trayvon Martin murder case, the Black Prosecutors Association of Los Angeles and the Black Women Lawyers Association held an event in the heart of south Los Angeles last week to offer legal, tactical, and moral insights into racial profiling of young black men by private citizens and law enforcement. Abstract notions of what panelists framed as “common sense versus common decency” got very real when a 14-year-old resident of Studio City tearfully told his story about being stopped by police.
3. “Why was George Zimmerman acquitted?”
Bobby Grace, deputy district attorney of Los Angeles: It was nearly impossible, from a legal standpoint, for the prosecution to prove that Zimmerman was the murderer because there was no independent evidence of someone saying, “I saw George Zimmerman kill Trayvon Martin.”
Also, the prosecutors in the case let the issue be defined by the defendant, George Zimmerman. I’m still not sure that there’s a narrative about race that the prosecutors could have successfully argued, from a cultural standpoint. The jury was not African-American, therefore the prosecutors were not even prepared to think about race as a strategy in the case — they were totally unprepared for that, and that’s also why they lost.
4. “Was it an impossible case to win?”
Jovan Blacknell, public defender based in Compton: No. I do think the case was winnable by the prosecution. The first thing I would try to do, you want to select a jury that identifies with your point of view, that relates to the issue that you’re trying to put forward. In the Zimmerman case, you have an all-female jury and mostly white — that jury was able to relate to the story the defender was saying.
For example, in the O.J. Simpson trial, there were eight black women on the jury. The prosecution tried to relate to those females by saying O.J. was an abuser of women, a violent man — while the defense was saying, “As black women, you can relate to the struggles that black people have with the law enforcement.” And they related to that. So the thing you want to do is get the jury to identify with the story you want to tell. If I can play upon the stereotypes that the jury may already believe, then I can win the case. For instance, there’s a stereotype that black men are aggressive, violent, or gangsters. That is stereotype that they played upon. The stereotype about some like Zimmerman is that he is not aggressive.
5. “What should a young man do if he’s in the same situation as Trayvon?”
Commander Bill Scott, Los Angeles Police Department, 77th Division: Get to a place where you have a tactical advantage. A place where there could be cameras around. If you’re being attacked, you have the right to defend yourself, but the advice that I give my kids and citizens is to consider what’s common sense and what’s reasonable. If there’s a path to get away, take it. Try to get to a place where they can help you. You have a cell phone, dial 911; even if they can’t help right away, those conversations are being recorded.
Mark Rosenbaum, legal director for the ACLU: Good mothers, in any situation, would say take the safest route, because they are calculating the way race works against their sons. George Zimmerman is permitted by law, encouraged by Stand Your Ground laws to take the position that he shouldn’t have to leave the situation at all. Zimmerman was the individual who had no business lurking around a teenage boy at night. The dialogue about this issue is way off: We’re talking about common sense, but we’re not talking about common decency.
6. “Trayvon Martin was an honor student with a high GPA. Why was that not brought up in court?”
Grace: That’s the biggest issue, not just for people of color but for white folks too: In a criminal trial, they want to get in evidence of a person’s character. Unfortunately in the criminal justice system, character is not considered admissible evidence unless it’s submitted after the verdict [so a judge or jury can decide on sentencing]. But the judge did allow into evidence that there was traces of marijuana in Trayvon Martin’s system during his autopsy. I feel that the judge made an incorrect ruling — that should not have been admitted into evidence.
7. “How can we be better represented in the jury box?”
Blacknell: You need to show up. When you register your car with the DMV, that goes to the courts and they know how to summons you for jury duty. To get a jury that represents you, you have to go to jury duty.
8. “How do we instill our rights into the heads of a police department that’s been racially profiling us for decades?”
Scott: I know of no police department in this country that officially engages in racial profiling [audience groans]. Are we perfect? No. All patrol cars have cameras on them. By and large, there are many times I can tell you, communication is the main problem. The officer needs to explain to a citizen what legal reason they have for stopping a citizen and the citizen should ask.
Rosenbaum: We had to sue the Los Angeles Police Department to get them to put videos in their patrol cars. I do not believe for a moment that every police department in the country, or in California, or in Los Angeles County doesn’t condone racial profiling. If that were really true and they didn’t racially profile, then police departments would publish their statistics that says why police stop people.
9. “I was stopped by an officer in a police car who asked me to lift my shirt and do a full turn around so he could see if I was sagging. He didn’t ask my white friends who were with me to do that. Officer, what can I do?”
Scott: I’m sorry that happened to you. I can see you’re still upset, I’m sorry it happened. What’s obvious is what didn’t happen: any kind of explanation. If that happens again, you should ask the officer, “Can I talk to your supervisor?” or, “Can I talk to your sergeant?” And they should get to the bottom of the facts. Bottom line: We owe you an explanation and we owe you treatment as a human being.
Rosenbaum: I strongly disagree that you should have asked that officer to bring his supervisor, because that officer would have arrested you. If you, as a 14-year-old young man, would have asked for his supervisor, you would have gotten in more trouble. You shouldn’t have to bear that burden as a 14-year-old. I’m inviting you to find the the records as to who is the officer on that street at that time. Find out if there recordings from inside the patrol car.
Jamal Hicks, criminal defense attorney for the Johnny Cochran Law Firm: The unfortunate reality is that there is a description, there is a profile out there of what a criminal is, and you fit the description. And so there will be many people in your life who will judge you not based on your character, but based on your skin tone. I don’t know the officer involved, but it sounds like he made a determination about you based on your race. What you need to know is that he has immediate power, and when we get to court, we have power. In that moment, you do have rights, your parents can file a complaint, start a paper trail. I want you to stand up about it, look into it, and be strong about it.