Zimmerman trial: It’s about race

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by Roxanne Jones

(CNN) — We have all been duped in the Trayvon Martin case. Bamboozled.

This case was never “open and shut” as Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump insisted in a news conference at the start of the trial. I doubted it was that easy from Day One.

Said Crump then: “The jury will have to hear all of the evidence. We think this is a simple case. No. 1: Zimmerman was a grown man with a gun. No. 2: Trayvon was a child with no blood on his hands. Literally.”

When I heard Crump’s words, I was immediately suspicious. Could it really be that simple? Or was the attorney just trying to placate a grieving family and spin an angle for the media? Did Crump really believe that “Justice for All” had finally arrived in our nation? And that the damning stereotypes associated with race and class would have no room in a Florida courtroom where George Zimmerman is being charged with second-degree murder in the death of Martin?

I’m no cynic but I am a realist. A realist who’s covered enough criminal trials to know for certain that the trial that plays out in the public over pep rally vigils and celebrity protests is never the trial that unfolds in the courtroom. I understand that race still matters deeply in our courtrooms, just as it does in our nation. And there’s no getting away from that fact.

As the trial of Zimmerman continues, nothing is as simple as it seems.

“This case is a perfect storm,” says Xavier Donaldson, a defense attorney and former prosecutor in New York. “You have to look at the nature of the case and the racial, political and social economics of the defendant and accused. You have a young black kid, walking with a sweatshirt on and some guy, who wants to be a cop, assumes he’s a criminal and shoots him dead.” Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder.

“Zimmerman had an image in his community as a good guy, who wanted to protect people. So he — and not Martin, the victim — has gotten the benefit of presumption of innocence. Normally, in murder cases that doesn’t happen. People generally believe that if you’ve been arrested and charged that you must have done something wrong, but those lines are blurred here,” says Donaldson.

It seems Zimmerman, in part because he belonged to his neighborhood watch group, has been granted the status of a police officer. He even has police officers testifying in his favor that Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, told them that the voice screaming for help on the 911 call was “not his son” when he heard the tape for the first time. The father strongly denies he said those words to the police.

Normally, the prosecutor in a high-profile murder case puts forth evidence to prove the defendant’s guilt and aggressively goes after any notion that suggests that the victim is at fault. The prosecution’s goal is to do anything it can to convince a jury that the killer is a menace that needs to be taken off the street. That’s how the battle is won in the courtroom.

But in the trial of Zimmerman, the prosecution — Richard Mantei — appears to be lying low and taking too many punches. Could it be that Mantei himself buys into the theory that Zimmerman is some misunderstood a do-gooder in the community? It’s just puzzling.

Words matter, as we have seen over the course of the trial. So when Mantei told the court before resting his case: “There are two people involved here. One of them is dead, and one of them is a liar,” I was shocked.

This is a murder case. One person is dead, and the other person is a murderer. Those words more accurately describe the facts presented in the case. There is no question that Zimmerman killed Martin, so there’s no reason to tiptoe around the words.

And that’s exactly what is so troubling for myself and many others, especially in the black community. It has been all too easy an idea for people to entertain that Martin did something to cause his own murder. History tells us that in our nation’s courtrooms and even outside of those walls, my son, your son, our sons still don’t have the presumption of innocence, even when they are the victims of a murder.

“I would have told Martin’s parents, ‘prepare for hell,’ ” says Donaldson. “It will not be easy. They will present evidence that will make your son look like the worst criminal. The defenses’ goal is to turn your son into the criminal here and make him guilty of the crime.”

No one knows yet how this trial will end. Donaldson feels it’s too close to call until rebuttals are made and the case wraps up. “It could go either way,” Donaldson says.

But I do know one thing: We should not have to wear a Trayvon T-shirt to an awards show or attend a pep rally to remind America that when an unarmed child is confronted and gunned down in the street by a grown man who’s trained to kill, that’s murder. End of story.

Editor’s note: Roxanne Jones is a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine and former vice president at ESPN. She is the CEO of The Push Marketing Group. Jones is an award-winning editor, reporter, writer and producer who has also worked at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer across news and sports. She is co-author of “Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete” (Random House).

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