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Zimmerman verdict raises questions about fairness, profiling and guns

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 16, 2013: The case of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin sparked intense discussion about race, profiling and the use of guns. 

But beyond those all those issues, Richard Rosenfeld sees the case as many do: the type of situation that shouldn’t have occurred and could have been avoided.

"I think it’s an absolutely tragedy, frankly," Rosenfeld said.

Like many Americans, Rosenfeld — a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis — was closely following the trial of Zimmerman, a Florida man who was found not guilty Saturday night for the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

While some legal experts said that prosecutors didn’t prove  Zimmerman's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, others throughout the country expressed outrage about the verdict. That included participants at a rally Sunday in front of the St. Louis Justice Center, an event duplicated in cities across the country.

Rosenfeld said the case is notable for more than its outcome -- specifically associating “every young black or minority kid with” potential criminality and then “profiling accordingly.”

“The chances that Trayvon Martin was involved in those burglaries or had any criminal intent as he was walking through the neighborhood are really very, very small,” Rosenfeld said. “And that’s the strongest argument against profiling. It’s simply factually ludicrous. Every young black man who walks through a neighborhood is not a threat to the neighborhood.”

That was a view shared by Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri. Mittman said in a statement that “following the verdict in the Zimmerman case, our collective task now is to hasten the movement toward racial equality and an end to racial profiling in Florida and throughout the country.” 

“It is necessary to increase not only the commitment, but the work to end the policies in our schools and in our criminal justice system that are responsible for removing people of color from school, robbing them of the opportunity for an education, arresting, incarcerating them, and destroying their future at alarmingly unjust and discriminatory rates,” Mittman said.

State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, agreed that the Zimmerman case should spark an end to racial profiling.

"Racial profiling is going to be on the top of a lot of people’s minds," Nasheed said. "And we’re going to see what we can do as a collective with the NAACP and the National Action Network. All of us are going to come together and see what we can do to try to have tougher laws when it comes to racial profiling."

Rosenfeld said the verdict also raises questions about the use of guns in self-defense.

“Regardless of whether he’s on top or on the bottom, the threat that (Martin) posed to Zimmerman was not sufficient in (my) view to justify Zimmerman shooting and killing him,” Rosenfeld said.

But “Stand Your Ground” laws, like Florida's, do not require somebody to retreat when confronted, he noted.

“OK, let’s accept that,” Rosenfeld said. “But that doesn’t, as far as I’m concerned, open the door to any and all actions – no matter how severe, how violent, how deadly – in protecting oneself. And you see that in the Missouri statute, which does require the individual to exhaust other remedies prior to using physical force.”

Rosenfeld was referring to a passage in Missouri law that states physical force is justified “provided that the actor takes all reasonable measures to terminate the restraint as soon as it is reasonable to do so.” (Missouri’s law also states that "a person does not have a duty to retreat from a dwelling, residence, or vehicle where the person is not unlawfully entering or unlawfully remaining.")

The above video shows scenes from Sunday's rally in front of the St. Louis Justice Center.

But Rosenfeld went on to say that "the type of physical force and the probability that it could lead to an individual’s death shouldn’t in my view be completely unlimited."

People, he said, could simultaneously acknowledge that they "do not always have a duty to retreat and at the same time face reasonable limits on the means they can take to protect themselves."

PIN sources weigh in

Soon after the verdict was reached, the Beacon sent out a Public Insight Network query for reaction to the verdict. Those who responded had different views on the case — and its impact.

To Joseph Higgs of St. Louis, the Zimmerman verdict means "that Americans still have the right to protect themselves if they are being theatened."

"I believe that Trayvon Martin was killed because he followed the advice of his culture," Higgs said. "He thought that if he showed how tough he was by beating Mr. Zimmerman black and blue, he would be showing the man that he was no punk. The only problem was that Mr. Zimmerman was armed."

Higgs said he’s had "more than a few encounters with teenagers who would curse and make motions of throwing a punch at me." He added, "Many urban teenagers have no respect for adults, and most of them know the police have no power over them."

"Trayvon was not some child minding his own business. He was a young man who thought wherever he put his foot down was his turf, and no one had any right to question him about what he was doing,” Higgs said. “If Trayvon had shown the slightest respect to his elders, he would still be alive."

Rodney Cook of St. Louis wrote, “Before and after the verdict, I saw a lot of racially charged posts on my Facebook page which all discussed ‘fair.’

“The context and circumstance of events referenced were not the same, but it was a defense of the majority culture to say that it was ‘unfair’ that so much attention be given to black teenager. To me, this suggested that this black teenager, regardless of what you think about Zimmerman's being guilty under the Florida law, was less valuable or not valuable.”

Cook went on to say that “when you treat children as though they are not valuable, the chickens come home to roost and not just for the majority culture, but also the minority culture.”

“If you don't value your children, then why should they value each other and/or you?” Cook asked.

St. Louis resident Barbara Click said Zimmerman’s acquittal “means that once again our justice system has failed at fair judgment.”

When asked what Click would tell young people about this case, Click said, “Justice was not served in this case; the justice system is made up of humans and humans err often; and it is up to us as individuals to always be aware of our own culpability.”

“Our system has swung far to the right and it is time for it to be corrected,” Click said. “All colors, all genders, all orientations, all people concerned with justice for all – if we unite at this crucial moment, we will be able to change the demise of justice.”

University City resident Barbara Finch said, “The issue of guns is as important in this case as the issue of race.”

“We need to bring some common sense into this gun debate,” Finch said. “We don't need armed citizens to police their gated communities. We don't need young men (or old men, or women) walking around with concealed weapons. We don't need vigilantes. We need calm, thoughtful, reasoned discourse about gun violence in America.”

Des Peres resident Stephen Comfort-Mason said the verdict “means justice, as delivered in Florida, leaves much to be desired.”

“All reasonable citizens should be working to encourage their legislative representatives at all levels to work for reasonable regulation of the types of weapons generally available to most citizens, to regulate high-capacity magazines, and to regulate the type and amount of ammunition a citizen can purchase and accumulate for their lawful weapons,” he said.

But Comfort-Mason said he wasn’t optimistic about legislative changes:

“I have no great expectations from my legislative representatives.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.