A provocative piece published today by Reuters provides a unique angle on the character of Trayvon Martin shooter George Zimmerman. The story attempts to present an unbiased portrait of the man at the center of the high-profile killing, one that just might provide the public with the best avenue into the mind of Mr. Zimmerman.
Over the course of a lengthy investigative report written by Chris Francescani, George Zimmerman is gradually removed from the violent, racist corner that his critics have painted him into and presented to the world as a far more complex, human figure.
Francescani covers everything from Zimmerman’s multi-ethnic background to the circumstances in his Sanford, Florida, neighborhood during the months leading up to the shooting. Many of these factors simply round out George Zimmerman's profile, other may have directly influenced his itchy trigger finger on the night of the shooting.
Francescani’s piece is fraught with controversy if for no other reason than the author proclaimed his intention to paint a “more nuanced portrait” of Zimmerman. He later said that his story lays waste to the media image of George Zimmerman as a “vigilante who had decided Martin was suspicious merely because he was black.”
But what exactly were the pertinent facts about Zimmerman that Francescani uncovered? Perhaps more importantly, do they truly suggest that all the racial undertones that have been so pronounced in this case are nothing but an unfortunate coincidence? From a legal and ethical standpoint, Francescani's research can be condensed into two critical points:
1) Zimmerman was not a racist
It’s one Francescani’s main conclusions. He cites evidence that Zimmerman tutored minority children, came from a mixed race background and had a number of enduring, lifelong relationships with black people. None of these factors on its own precludes the possibility that George Zimmerman harbored a common prejudice against young, black men, but their cumulative effect suggests that Zimmerman was probably not “out hunting black people,” as many of his critics have insinuated.
2) Zimmerman had reason to be on edge
According to Francescani’s reporting, Zimmerman and his family had been instructed to carry guns to fend off dangerous pitbulls in the neighborhood. At first, they preferred to use pepper spray, but they were advised that the caustic spray would not work fast enough to deter the dogs in the event of an attack. "Get a gun," they were told. Zimmerman’s neighborhood had also experienced a string of robberies – hence the night watch. True, Zimmerman was not supposed to be carrying a gun (by neighborhood watch mandate, not by law) and his instructions were to observe and report, but on past instances when Zimmerman did report suspicious activity, the cops didn’t arrive fast enough to catch the crook. The piece says Zimmerman was upset because "the a------ always get away." No doubt, Zimmerman acted rashly on the night he shot Trayvon Martin, but maliciously? I’m not sure that’s provable.
Zimmerman has been charged with second degree murder, a zealous indictment by the estimation of most legal analysts. The mens rea element of that charge – that is to say the “intent” element – is critical and burdensome to prove. If Francescani’s portrait of Zimmerman holds water in a court of law, it almost certainly spells disaster for the prosecution. What then? Will the black community accept that Trayvon Martin’s shooting was an unfortunate case of mistaken identity? Will all the talking heads on the left be moved by Zimmerman’s outreach in the black community? By his Democratic voter registration? Should it/does it make a difference that George Zimmerman was a soft spoken, Obama-voting serial volunteer rather than a violent, Limbaugh-listening Klansman with an NRA card in his back pocket?
It’s possible that the most important moral of Francescani’s story is that this case has become more about right vs. left, black vs. white and media sensation vs. fact than it has about the actual character of George Zimmerman and the lost life of Trayvon Martin. Without printing it explicitly, Francescani intimates that the media - and not George Zimmerman - forced the country to look at this case through a racially tinted lens. The most frightening reality we may have to face is that the Zimmerman case truly has no pertinent racial component - that the shooting was a tragedy for Martin and Zimmerman.
If the facts presented in court bear out Zimmerman’s side of the story, will everyone accept that result? Somehow I doubt it will be that simple.