The verdict in the Trayvon Martin killing seems unjust for sure. George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old neighborhood monitor, chased after the teenage, unarmed Martin one night in February 2012, then shot him dead in a scuffle. Should Zimmerman have been convicted? The case against him turned out pretty weak: With no witness to the crime and a set of clues that weren’t inconsistent with the defendant’s story of what happened, legal experts say the jury had good reason to acquit. Yet a simple thought experiment makes the outrage more distinct. What would have happened if the two men’s roles (or races) had been reversed? Would a Black kid’s story of self-defense have been as convincing to the jury? Maybe Zimmerman should walk, but then so should all the nonWhite men who are put away for something less.
To support this theory of the Martin verdict, angry observes have been tweeting links to an AP story from May 2012, describing how a middle-class Black woman, Marissa Alexander, was sent to jail for 20 years after firing a “warning shot” in a confrontation with her abusive husband at their home in Jacksonville. “When the defense says, What would have happened if George Zimmerman was Black, this is the answer,” said MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry. “She shot a ceiling and she got 20 years.”
That’s not quite right. Alexander wasn’t singled out for being Black, or she wasn’t only singled out for being Black. The same article that described her case cites an example of a White man, Orville Lee Wollard, who suffered a similar fate. (He shot a gun inside his house, allegedly to scare off his daughter’s boyfriend.) Looked at side by side, Alexander’s case and Zimmerman’s reveal more than racial bias in the courtroom—though surely that exists. They expose a tragic weirdness in Florida’s approach to gun violence. The swamp of gun laws in the state makes it extra-hard to find a person guilty in a shooting, since there are such broad provisions for self-defense. But when a shooter is convicted, the same set of rules ensures he’s really up a creek. “Use a gun and your [sic] done,” the government says. That makes a trial for these sorts of crimes like playing the lottery: It’s a bet with low odds but high stakes.