I never met Trayvon Martin. I never had an opportunity to see him smile or hear him laugh. I became familiar with his wonderful mother, a woman of incredible strength, through the most unfortunate of circumstances. Still, I never had the chance to actually meet Trayvon himself.
When I heard the verdict on Saturday, like many I was confused and disappointed. The duality of being a Black man who is also a former prosecutor was too much to bear and too difficult to reconcile in that moment. After stepping back and looking at the trial objectively, and the case in its entirety, I have to concede that the verdict—while unjust—is consistent with the law.
The first thing that must be understood is the difficult nature of the prosecution’s case. There are only two people who were present on that February night in 2012. Just two eyewitnesses who actually know what happened. One is dead. The other is protected by his Constitutional right against self-incrimination. That means it was up to the State of Florida to tell Trayvon Martin’s story. They were without the benefit of Martin himself, but were further handicapped by not having anyone else who would be able to deliver a firsthand account of that night’s fateful events.
From as early as the indictment, months before the actual trial, the prosecution struggled to stay in front of a case that was spiraling out of control on a rapidly growing stage. The inaction by Sanford police regarding Zimmerman’s arrest drew Martin’s death further into the national spotlight before the State’s attorneys office had concluded its investigation. The court of opinion was at the wheel, steering the ship and, in the process, giving the defense team extra time and useful insight to develop a strategy that ultimately proved effective. When the prosecution did file its indictment shortly after Zimmerman’s arrest, the indictment seemed rushed in the charges the State brought against him. In hindsight, it is even more obvious that the prosecution had not thought critically about its theory of the case. One reason for a hasty indictment may have been the state’s need to create the appearance of swift justice after such a long delay before Zimmerman’s arrest. The pressure had swelled as the case became national dialogue and shined a collective spotlight on small Sanford, Florida. Even President Obama lent comment on the situation.
As a result, the prosecution lost control of the narrative of the case and never got it back. Rather than aggressively hammering home the bottom line and seeking a fair and just verdict that was consistent with common sense, the State was baited into a game of debate on marginally important details. This played directly into the defense’s strategy, and allowed too much room for reasonable doubt. The State spun its case-in-chief on its heels, spending as much time laying the foundation for its own case as they did trying to anticipate and counter the arguments they expected the defense to make. Meanwhile, the defense knew that the prosecution’s distraction with smaller issues was enough to give their client a fighting chance. Therefore, they goaded the State into following them deeper down that trail. The prosecution then happily obliged, and got further away from the bottom line which mattered most.
This perpetual game of “catch up” played within the context of the defense team’s narrative was a fatal flaw because the State had allowed everyone from Trayvon Martn to Rachel Jeantel to be placed on trial. Everyone except for Zimmerman. By the time the defense had competed its case, and before closing statements, a trial which was once about a young Black man’s right not to be profiled, targeted, and murdered for doing absolutely nothing had suddenly morphed into seemingly endless small details with no one to really explain why they were so important in the context of the big picture. While the prosecution delivered an outstanding summation and rebuttal that attempted to bring back the narrative, it was simply too far gone by that time. Too little, too late.
Despite the fact that the verdict in this case may be consistent with the law, the outcome hardly seems consistent with justice. A young, innocent, unarmed Black boy was killed. And this verdict says that it’s no one’s fault.
I never met Trayvon Martin. And, because of George Zimmerman, I never will.
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a former Brooklyn, NY prosecutor and current federal trial attorney specializing in civil rights. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @CFColemanJr.