Taciana Pierre of Springfield Gardens was thinking about her 12-year-old son last Saturday when she saw the verdict delivered in the case of the People of Florida v. George Zimmerman.
“I felt helpless,” she said Tuesday night at New Jerusalem Baptist Church in Jamaica. “I thought ‘I can’t protect my son once he leaves my home.’”
Pierre was one of more than 130 people who showed up at a community forum hosted by state Sen. James Sanders (D-Jamaica) to discuss people’s feelings about the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, and where the local and national communities can go from this point forward.
Famed civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel headlined a panel that included Professor Leonard Baynes of St. John’s University School of Law; attorney Richard Washington, a former prosecutor in Manhattan now in private practice; the Rev. Phil Craig, president of the Queens Chapter of the national Action Network; and Russell Cheek, of The Black Institute. Typical of Sanders’ town hall-style meetings on controversial subjects, the discourse was civil, though often blunt.
“We have to start by thinking,” Sanders said.
A six-woman jury on Saturday acquitted Zimmerman of murder and all lesser charges in the February 2012 death of Martin, 17, who was unarmed.
Zimmerman said he shot Martin in self-defense while being beaten. A member of his neighborhood watch group, Zimmerman left his car with a handgun and was told by a police dispatcher not to follow Martin, who was returning home from a store with a small bag of candy and a soft drink.
Siegel said Florida allows for self-defense even if Zimmerman initiated the confrontation.
“In New York, if I punch Sen. Sanders, the most he can legally do is punch me back,” Siegel said. “In Florida and 20 other states, he is allowed to pull out a gun.”
Siegel also said Florida law in the Martin-Zimmerman situation relies only on Zimmerman’s state of mind at the time he decided to fire, whether or not he initiated a confrontation.
He said in Florida the burden is on the state to disprove that Zimmerman felt he needed to use deadly force to save his own life or protect himself from serious physical harm at the instant he shot Martin.
“If we had a video of George Zimmerman getting out of his car, following Trayvon Martin and confronting him, of someone throwing a punch and George Zimmerman shooting him, a jury in Florida is not allowed to look at the video — just a snapshot,” he said.
Siegel believes they overreached in charging Zimmerman with second-degree murder.
“If they had charged him with manslaughter, there is a whole other conversation going on in that courtroom,” he said.
All panelists said the prosecution’s argument that the case was not about race was absurd.
Washington said the venue around Sanford, Fla., for example, lent itself to a jury pool that would be overwhelmingly white.
He also felt that the prosecution team did not concentrate on Zimmerman’s motivation, starting with his exiting his car when told not to by the police dispatcher, while carrying the gun that is not permitted on community watch patrol.
He said the state’s failure to dictate the flow of its case allowed the defense to do so. Cheek said it was not only a case about race, but racism. Craig said it is worse.
“I don’t care about racism, because I don’t care if you like me,” he said. “But you will respect me, and [Florida laws] don’t respect us.”
“They were more concerned with being politically correct than with trying the case,” Washington said. “In this case, you have to make people feel uncomfortable.”
Siegel said the federal government can, in such cases, prosecute Zimmerman and avoid constitutional issues of double jeopardy if the Department of Justice can prove there was one or more civil rights violations involved in Zimmerman’s actions.
But he said the federal guidelines for that are very narrowly defined, and in his opinion President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder — both of whom he likes and supports — have a less than stellar record on civil rights prosecutions since taking office in 2009.
“I’m not saying don’t call the Justice Department or don’t sign the petitions,” Siegel told the crowd. “I’m saying don’t put your eggs in that basket. Put your eggs in a civil trial, which I hope Trayvon Martin’s family will file. The money isn’t important. What’s important is that George Zimmerman will be forced to testify under oath, which didn’t happen here. Then we’ll find out what happened.”
Standards for beating Zimmerman in a civil trial have a lower bar, requiring only a preponderance of the evidence, rather than in a criminal trial, where the standard is reasonable doubt.
As for where the Jamaica area community can go from here, panelists said marches from Manhattan to Washington, D.C. are planned in the coming weeks, and that they must be well-attended if they are to have results.
Several people spoke of boycotting the state of Florida, though Sanders cautioned them to consider the law of unintended consequences.
“Could that end up hurting poor blacks in Florida?” he asked.
Yvonne Walker of Elmont said she called her sons, ages 17 and 12, and one of their friends into the room to watch the verdict.
“I was hoping they would see that the system works, that they would see justice,” she said. Her eldest son, whom she said did not talk about the case, was at first silent, but wound up comforting her afterward.
“Now, at least, he is talking about it,” she said.