“Yes, I think they deserved to die. And I hope they burn in hell.”
These are the tortured words spoken in a fictional Mississippi courtroom by Samuel L. Jackson in the 1996 film, “A Time to Kill”, based on John Grisham’s 1989 novel.
Jackson played Carl Lee Hailey, an African-American father on trial for murdering two white men who brutally raped, beat and hung his 10 year old daughter, Tonya. The child survives the attack and the men are arrested. The story is set in the post-Jim Crow South, where the remnants of racial injustice reign supreme. The father fears the men will walk free, as he remembers a similar case in the Mississippi Delta in which four white teenagers were acquitted after raping a black girl.
Carl Lee buys an M16 rifle, goes to the county courthouse, and opens fire on the two rapists, resulting in their death. The rest of the film explores deep-seated racial hatred in the South and disparities in criminal justice. Prosecutors charge Hailey with murder in the first degree, and ask the Court for capital punishment. No consideration is ever given for the circumstances surrounding the tragic rape of his pre-pubescent daughter.
As Hailey’s trial unfolds he admits under oath that he wanted the men to die – all but sealing his fate for a conviction and the death penalty. But his young lawyer, portrayed by Matthew McCounaghey, implores the White jurors to close their eyes and imagine a broken, molested, raped and beaten 10 year-old girl. And then to imagine she’s White.
It is this, in true Hollywood form, that helps them to see how horrific the crime was and how human the father’s response – though violent – is fully justified. Carl Lee is acquitted and his family reunited, as he stands as a symbol of a strong, protective Black father figure.
It is this lens that I’d like to explore the tragic murder of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent treatment his murderer, George Zimmerman, has received from both the criminal justice system, and a wildly forgiving White American populace. For you see, Hollywood fiction and Jim Crow politics have become 21st Century reality.
For the vast majority of African-Americans, it is impossible to believe that a skinny White teenager, holding Skittles and a can of iced tea, could so invoke fear in a grown man with a gun, that the man feels his only recourse is to shoot-to-kill the child. But is far more difficult to fathom that police and state attorneys would accept the man’s version of events, and see the dead White child as the perpetrator. Yet this is the Twilight Zone in which Trayvon Martin’s death occurred, and his murderer walks free.
Last week’s new bail hearing, in which Zimmerman was released on a $1 million bond, further highlights the imbalance in the scales of justice. Zimmerman has experienced a privilege unknown to most Americans who commit violent crime, especially if they’re Black.
First, after murdering Martin and claiming a self-defense immunity under Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ provision, Zimmerman was released on the same night, and allowed to carry the murder weapon with him. Only after 44 days of widespread media attention and civil rights protests was he finally formally charged with a crime. Two weeks later he and his wife lied in open court claiming they had no funds to post bail. His father, Richard Zimmerman, a retired court magistrate, corroborated these lies and Zimmerman was released again on a small bond of $150,000 (for which only $15,000 was required for release). By all standards the presiding Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester was overly generous, considering the severity of the crime. He could have denied bail altogether, as many critics wished he had.
And here it where the absurd meets the unjust.
In the weeks between Zimmerman’s arrest and his release on bond, a website was established asking for donations to cover legal expenses for his defense. Thousands rallied to his cause, sending – by some estimates – upwards of $200,000 to $300,000 in two weeks alone. These donations were not given for starving children in a third world country, or a righteous cause like AIDS or cancer research – but rather, for the defense of a man who shot and murdered an innocent child.
What sick, twisted minds give money to such a cause?
Furthermore, state prosecutors monitored calls between Zimmerman and his wife Shellie, only to discover that prior to the initial bond hearing the two had conspired to conceal and transfer the hundreds of thousands of dollars received in their online fundraising effort.
On June 1st, presented with this new evidence, Judge Lester revoked Zimmerman’s bail and he was ordered back to prison. Lester determined that it was “apparent” that Zimmerman’s wife Shellie had lied under oath and that George “does not properly respect the law or the integrity of the judicial process”.
Shellie was arrested, charged with perjury and now awaits a trial of her own. Yet Lester, just weeks later, approved another bond release for George Zimmerman. How is that possible?
It is imperative to also consider that Zimmerman has a prior record – having been arrested for assaulting a police officer and cited for an act of domestic violence against a former girlfriend.
Would any Black man in America with a violent criminal record, who has just murdered an unarmed White teenager ever be treated with such leniency? Would that man ever see the light of day prior to trial? And could that Black man ever credibly claim he felt threatened by the child? I sought such an example in America’s nearly 240 year-old judicial history for such a case – it does not exist.
To further complicate matters, Judge Lester also concluded that George Zimmerman presented a flight risk. Zimmerman had failed to tell the Court he held a second passport, by which he could have easily left the country.
In arguing the case for the second bond release, Zimmerman’s attorney Mark O’Mara claimed that despite the hundreds of thousands raised online, the family needed more. And this is where dirty racial politics are elevated to courtroom drama antics. Since when does murdering Black children become a means of profiteering? Why should the public fund the defense of a man who murdered a child, and by all accounts did so because of an acute racial bias?
O’Mara answered that question in a statement published on another fundraising website, GZLegalCase.com, O’Mara wrote:
“For those who have given in the past, for those who have thought about giving, for those who feel Mr. Zimmerman was justified in his actions, for those who feel they would do the same if they were in Mr. Zimmerman’s shoes, for those that think Mr. Zimmerman has been treated unfairly by the media, for those who feel Mr. Zimmerman has been falsely accused as a racist, for those who feel this case is an affront to their constitutional rights–now is the time to show your support.”
The most disturbing and unapologetically racist statements here are “for those who feel Mr. Zimmerman was justified…for those who feel they would do the same thing if they were in Mr. Zimmerman’s shoes.”
In what world do thousands of Americans believe Zimmerman did the right thing and show their support through financial donations? These words serve as a dog-whistle and raid siren for disgruntled white racists who think it is their patriotic duty to disrespect the lives and humanity of Black people. This is the kind of mentality that saw thousands of African-Americans subjected to lynching in the Jim Crow South.
Recently the prosecution released documents regarding a potential “Witness #9”, who is a female family member of George Zimmerman, and admitted to police officers that the Zimmerman family hated “black people”, and the mother herself, originally of Peruvian origin, is a “racist”. She also alleged Zimmerman had molested her as a child.
Mark O’Mara originally sought to suppress these documents, but the judge concluded that under Florida law they had to be released. Court documents also revealed that Zimmerman is seeking spiritual counsel from Gainesville, Florida pastor Terry Jones. Jones became notorious a couple years ago, when he staged a Qur’an burning, that set-off violent protest in Afghanistan. Jones also planned to organize a pro-Zimmerman rally.
Given the pre-trial evidence, showing Zimmerman’s numerous 911 calls targeting Black males as suspicious, his past criminal record, the violent events surrounding the murder of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin, and the knowledge that he and his wife conspired – under oath – to hide money from the Court, it is puzzling that this man is free on bail today.
America’s original sin has become a cancer on our socio-political consciousness – and imbues our legal process in such a way that never allows for colorblind justice.
The case against Zimmerman is strong, but it remains Trayvon Martin on trial.
George Zimmerman walked free after lodging a bullet into the child’s chest, and now continues with the support of a cynical media, and the financial empowerment of white racist factions, to frame himself as the victim. They use age-old racist ideologies of Black male criminality and White fear, to justify the murder of an innocent boy in a hoodie, walking home in the rain. And the entire criminal justice system and judicial process is skewed in their favor.
History does not always repeat itself, but echoes quite loudly. This is 21st Century Jim Crow.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing regularly on MSNBC, Al-Jazeera and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.