The anger radiating out of Sanford, Florida, is palpable. The killing of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, has energized the country unlike any single death in recent memory.
The rising tide of anger has washed up in other parts of the country; thousands have gathered for protests against Martin’s killing in cities such as Los and New York City, Miami and Chicago. His death is largely seen as a racial issue involving a Hispanic shooter and a white police department that has so far failed to deliver justice in the form of an arrest. Groups such as the ACLU and the NAACP, civil rights leaders and the friends and family of Trayvon Martin want justice, and they want it now.
Amen, I say. If only it were that simple. The circumstances are anything but cut and dry.
The investigation conducted by the Sanford Police Department uncovered no eye witnesses to the killing. Cell phone transcripts and verbal testimony from passersby were examined, but apparently little was found to contradict Zimmerman’s statement that he acted in self defense. In fact, the physical evidence found actually supported Zimmerman’s assertion.
As critics and their questions mounted, Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee released an answering statement, but in the ensuing mayhem his reasoned response, based on state law, was lost in the vortex. Those screaming for justice only wanted to hear the words, “We have arrested George Zimmerman for the homicide of Trayvon Martin.” Logic cost the Sanford chief his job.
Throwing the baby out with the bath water is a useless endeavor, and in the end it resolves nothing. No amount of political pressure can change the fact that the police and prosecutors lack probable cause to arrest Zimmerman for murdering Trayvon Martin. That fact remains true whether or not one looks at this case through the lens of the so-called “Stand Your Ground Law.” Absent that probable cause, no cop or prosecutor is going to make an unlawful arrest if that action carries the risk of a lawsuit, the loss of a job or a stint in federal prison.
This explains the presence in Sanford of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights. Their arrival would seem prescient if the lack of evidence for state charges were not already a given. In the heated atmosphere in Sanford, the feds wisely chose to check in early. Instead of watching Florida riot, much as Los Angeles did when four police officers were acquitted on state charges for the beating of Rodney King, federal officials are trying to stay ahead of the curve on this one.
There’s good reason to have the Office of Civil Rights (and the Federal Bureau of Investigation) handle the Martin case. Federal law enforcement officers can make arrests for crimes that are unique to the federal criminal justice system. This is a part of criminal law deeply saturated with constitutional standards, and it is the realm where Zimmerman’s actions, his potential racial bias and his use of a firearm, will be looked at with much greater scrutiny.
Most of us can only imagine the pain which the family of Trayvon Martin is currently experiencing. Their shock, sorrow and anger is raw. The killing has ignited a large number of people whose voices are loud in their rage. They want it to be clearly understood that our country’s struggles with its cancorous problem – racial prejudice – are far from over.
Understood. But let’s move forward with due regard for the limits of the law, even if those limits frustate us. Let’s wait for the federal investigation to make a case against Zimmerman where the state investigation failed. Let’s not push past the boundary of sense and decency by twisting the law into a shape we require for that moment.
The law doesn’t work that way. We need to be patient.