Uncommon God, Common Good
3/26/12 at 06:24 PM 13 Comments

Presumed Innocent or Guilty?

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Many of you know about the tragic slaying of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin in late February by a neighborhood watch leader in Sanford, Florida. The story has received national media attention, sparked protests in various places, and has quickened responses from political leaders, including President Obama. Up until now, no charges have been filed against the neighborhood watch leader, since he claimed that he was acting in self-defense. Florida has a law (“Stand Your Ground”) that individuals in Florida receive immunity for using deadly force inside or outside their homes when they can reasonably claim that they are defending themselves.

It is important for our country and for the families of slain Trayvon Martin and identified slayer, George Zimmerman, that the case go to trial in their home state of Florida. Otherwise, it is very hard for us to hold true to a cardinal virtue of our justice system—a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. So far, it seems that Trayvon was presumed guilty that night by being shot to death; he was never given the chance to prove otherwise. He deserves the right to a fair trial so that he might potentially be cleared of being the aggressor and assailant. In fact, many people already think George Zimmerman was the aggressor and assailant. Regardless of what anyone thinks, though, George also deserves a fair hearing and a day in court.

Still, I have some questions. Why did George Zimmerman find Trayvon Martin suspicious and threatening in the first place? Nothing I have heard or read so far suggests that Trayvon was a threat to anyone that night before their altercation. Was it Trayvon’s hooded head? There have been times when I have worn a hooded sweatshirt or jacket in the rain. Was it Trayvon’s talking on his cell phone? Sometimes I talk on my phone when taking a walk. Was it Trayvon’s bag of Skittles he purchased from a local convenience store? Was this a case of WWB (Walking While Black)? The 9-1-1 dispatcher told George that he did not need to pursue this supposedly suspicious character (Trayvon) about whom he called. George didn’t appear to listen. Instead, he pursued Trayvon and later pulled his gun and shot him, claiming he did so in self-defense. But was George acting in self-defense? Was his own life threatened? Based on the conversation with his girlfriend on the cell phone, Trayvon felt threatened, too. Why was he being followed? Why was he supposedly confronted? George had the gun. Trayvon had Skittles and a can of iced tea. Which of them should have sensed more danger? Trayvon was found guilty of apparently threatening George and so he died. Only his name can now be cleared.

As each day unfolds, the story’s getting more complicated. George is a White Hispanic, and an African American friend of his as well as others have come forward to claim that he is not racist. One report now indicates that a witness has come forward and told authorities that Trayvon attacked George and had gained the upper hand. Such a mixture of claims, and such a mixture of feelings internally and nation-wide, capture our imaginations and send us looking for answers. Will we find any answers that are wise and just?

The case must go to trial in the hope that innocence and guilt can be established. Both men’s innocence is at stake, and so, too, is our country’s. All too often, our country has been guilty of not granting fair trials to Black men. Still, a multitude of unjust trials for Black men does not prove George Zimmerman guilty. In fact, in the end, he may be shown to be innocent in a court of law, as strange as that may seem to so many of his angry critics and accusers. Then again, Trayvon may be proved innocent of wrong-doing and George found guilty. While Trayvon’s being found innocent would not bring him back from the grave or undo a multitude of unfair trials for Black men in the past, it would still matter greatly to our justice system and society, and to Trayvon’s family. While we cannot erase the past, we can still learn from the past and act justly this time and build a more just future for our families and our nation. Regardless of the outcome, a fair trial is needed. Otherwise, our system will be found guilty all over again.

But the nagging question rises in many minds: could there ever be a fair trial for Trayvon, or for George? Many African American men have their doubts that Trayvon would receive a fair trial. A dear friend of mine, an African American pastor, wrote these lines in response as I was crafting this blog post: “I agree with you 100% in that there must be a fair trial in this case. From the perspective of a Black man, I have been in Trayvon's position many times over the course of my life. However, I thank God that I have survived so far without getting shot. When I heard of this case, many feelings rose up inside of me along with many memories. It was as if I was right there with Trayvon undergoing judgment, living his experience. My concern here is: would there be a fair trial? ‘Fairness’ is always suspect and so subjective when one is wearing black skin.” While there must be a fair trial, there is no guarantee that Trayvon would receive a fair trial, if the case makes it to court. His voice is silent and would not be heard in the courtroom (apart from a possible recording); only George’s voice would be heard in the courtroom. No doubt, there are also fears that George could never receive a fair trial, given our racialized history and present reality, as well as the pressure mounting on the case from scores of people, including celebrities, in support of Trayvon. We must do our best as a society to make sure that Trayvon’s and George’s respective positions are heard inside and outside the courtroom.

Regardless of the outcome in this situation, we must make sure that all future cases of this kind are investigated and taken to court. Immunity from criminal investigation in such cases is quite alarming. While all citizens of all ethnicities have a fundamental right to protect their families and themselves from imminent bodily harm, including Trayvon and George, it is only right that those who use lethal force while fearing such threat be required to present their case in court.

In closing, we must support both families and pursue fairness and justice in support of our society as fellow Americans. We must fight for justice and equity. Still, regardless of whether or not the case goes to court, there would likely be a vast mixture of polarizing opinions in the end. Beyond the facts of the case revealed so far, the reactions in so many quarters reveal how racialized our country is even now. Many will say that Trayvon was prejudged, and others are saying that George is being prejudged, all on matters of race. Trayvon and George are not the only ones on trial, whether the case goes to court or not. We are all on trial as Americans, for this account is deeply engrained in our country’s story, soul, and psyche. Moreover, we are also on trial in that the more we prejudge this or that person as innocent or guilty before a fair trial is granted and its outcome concluded, the more we are guilty of the very thing we decry—prejudice.

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths. This volume and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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