It’s unfortunate that it took a national outcry and nearly seven weeks for Florida authorities to charge a neighborhood watch volunteer in the Feb. 26 shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Nor does George Zimmerman’s arrest mean he’ll be convicted of second-degree murder, or of any crime, because there apparently were no eyewitnesses to the shooting and the only person who could dispute Zimmerman’s version of what transpired in the gated community is dead. But regardless of what happened that night, or what happens in court, Zimmerman’s arrest is welcome because it improves the chances that a couple of this country’s more serious problems will get some much-needed attention.
The easiest and most obvious of those problems is the neighborhood watch. These groups formalize what good neighbors have always done for one another — keeping an eye on things. No problem there, except when the person doing the watching goes too far and makes faulty assumptions about someone simply because he doesn’t know him, perhaps because he looks out of place.
People who join neighborhood watch groups need to be trained so they don’t jump to hasty conclusions, and proceed judiciously when they do encounter someone they consider suspicious. (Zimmerman at first did the right thing by alerting police; unfortunately, it appears he then failed to follow their advice to back off.)
When people like Zimmerman take the law into their own hands (in this case, against the explicit advice of a police dispatcher), they cease to be neighborhood watchers, but are vigilantes. This is dangerous enough even when they don’t carry guns. What happened here should make clear to all that they should not — ever — be allowed to do so.
A second big concern raised by this case involves Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which allows someone to use deadly force to defend themselves when they feel threatened, whether they’re in their home or outside it. (Until Florida’s law was passed in 2005, with numerous states following suit, the longstanding legal requirement was for people to walk away in such instances.) The problem, as this case amply demonstrates, is that with no witnesses, there’s no way to know whether the person using deadly force was really threatened; the victim is dead and there’s precious little evidence. That’s why convicting Zimmerman is likely to be a challenge.
As to whether he deserves to be convicted, who knows? He claims to have shot the unarmed 17-year-old in self-defense, in the midst of a struggle, but the video of him entering the police station shortly after the incident shows no signs of the bloody nose and neck injuries he claims Martin gave him.
Lastly, of course, the shooting raises concerns about racism: What, if anything, did Trayvon Martin do to make George Zimmerman think he was “a real suspicious guy”? Was it simply that he was black? That he wore a hoodie?
Zimmerman’s defense team may be able to create enough doubt in jurors’ minds about their client’s motives, and thanks to “stand your ground” they may get him off. But large numbers of Americans may impose a higher burden of proof, and an acquittal could raise serious doubts among them about racism and the fairness of our justice system.