By Jeffrey L. Boney
Special to the NNPA from the Houston Forward Times
On Saturday, July 13, 2013, Trayvon Benjamin Martin was found guilty of being a young, Black man in America.
In a case that has riveted this nation, George Zimmerman, the self-appointed ‘neighborhood watch captain’ who disobeyed dispatchers orders not to follow Trayvon and killed him, was found not guilty in the 18th Circuit Court of Florida.
After sixteen hours of deliberations over the course of two days, the six-woman jury rendered a not guilty verdict on all counts. After the verdict was read, Judge Debra S. Nelson informed Zimmerman that he was free to go and he thanked his lawyers and hugged his family members.
Though the parents of Trayvon, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, sat through every day of the trial, they were not present to hear the verdict. They chose Twitter to thank their supporters and express their thoughts.
"Lord during my darkest hour I lean on you," tweeted Fulton. "You are all that I have. At the end of the day, GOD is still in control. Thank you all for your prayers and support. I will love you forever Trayvon!!! In the name of Jesus!!!"
Tracy Martin expressed his appreciation for people fighting on behalf of his son and also shared his feelings.
"Even though I am broken hearted my faith is unshattered I WILL ALWAYS LOVE MY BABY TRAY," tweeted Tracy Martin.
The jury convicted Trayvon of his own murder and freed Zimmerman of murder, but that conviction and acquittal did not come from a jury of Trayvon’s peers.
The population of Seminole County is 10 percent African American, but a jury of five White women and a white Hispanic woman found Zimmerman "not guilty."
Ever since this case hit the national scene, it has re-energized the long-running debate in the United States over racial profiling and civil rights violations.
On February 26, 2012, the 17-year old Trayvon, who was armed with nothing but a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea, was murdered by Zimmerman, a white Hispanic male, while he was walking back home from the convenience store.
9-1-1 calls show that Zimmerman called the police to report a ‘suspicious person’ walking in the neighborhood. When Zimmerman reported that the person (Trayvon) was a Black man and that "he looked like he was on drugs," the dispatcher told Zimmerman not to confront Trayvon, and that they were on their way. Zimmerman responded that "they always get away," prompting him to pursue Trayvon and subsequently shoot him in the heart.
On another 9-1-1 call heard during the trial, you hear a homeowner talking to a police dispatcher. In the background you hear the screams of a person yelling for "Help!" when all of a sudden you hear a loud gunshot and then the screams for help cease.
On the night of the shooting, the Sanford Police department and the police chief refused to arrest Zimmerman, because they believed their initial investigation supported his self-defense claim. After police accepted the testimony from Zimmerman that Martin attacked him, he avoided arrest for six weeks following the shooting.
The lack of an arrest triggered protests and led to the resignation of the police chief. After much pressure was put on the state and the U.S. Department of Justice, Florida State Attorney Angela Corey eventually assigned a special prosecutor to the case and Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder. The case highlighted Florida’s self-defense law which allows lethal force to be used if the victim fears great bodily harm or death and was the catalyst behind how Zimmerman was able to initially avoid arrest.
Now, while "stand your ground" seemed to have worked for Zimmerman in his criminal case to help avoid jail time, it doesn’t appear to work too well for African Americans.
Marissa Alexander was a 31-year-old mother of a toddler and 11-year-old twins, when her life changed forever and the "stand your ground" law in Florida that Zimmerman used didn’t save her from being sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Alexander had just delivered her newborn child from her estranged husband, Rico Gray, nine days before and she had gotten a restraining order against him. Thinking that he was not at their former home, Alexander went there on August 1, 2010, to retrieve the rest of her clothes and items. Upon her arrival, an argument ensued and Alexander said she feared for her life, so she went out to her vehicle and retrieved the gun she legally owned. She went back inside to get her items and ended up firing a shot into the wall, which ricocheted into the ceiling. Gray testified that he saw Alexander point the gun at him and looked away before she fired the shot. He claimed that she was the aggressor and that he begged her to put the weapon away.
The judge decided to disregard Alexander’s self-defense claim based on the "stand your ground" law, stating that Alexander could have run out of the house to escape, but got the gun and went back inside instead.
A little more than 460 miles north of Sanford, Florida, a Black man named John McNeil was just released from prison after receiving a life sentence for shooting Brian Epp, a White man who trespassed on his property and attacked him at his home in Georgia, another "stand your ground" state.
In early 2005, McNeil and his wife, Anita, hired Epp’s construction company to build a new house in Cobb County, Georgia. After having difficulty working with Epp and having several heated confrontations, the McNeils decided to just close on their house early and stop working with Epp, whom they found to be threatening. At the closing, both parties agreed that Epp would have 10 days to complete the work, after which he would stay away from the property. Epp failed to keep up his end of the bargain and on December 6, 2005, McNeil’s 15-year-old son, La’Ron, called his dad and told him that a man he didn’t recognize was lurking in the backyard.
While his son was still on the phone, McNeil heard an argument break out and he instantly recognized Epp’s voice in the background. According to La’Ron’s testimony, Epp pointed a folding utility knife at La’Ron’s face and said, "Why don’t you make me leave?" at which point McNeil told his son to go inside while he called 9-1-1. McNeil proceeded to head to his house to check on his son and the situation.
According to McNeil’s testimony, when he pulled up to his house, Epp was next door getting something out his truck and stuffing it in his pocket. McNeil testified that he grabbed his gun from the glove compartment of his car and jumped out. He said that Epp approached him and so he fired a warning shot at the ground in order to have Epp back off. Instead of backing off, McNeil testified that Epp charged at him while reaching for his pocket, so he fired again, this time fatally striking Epp in the head. After the police arrived, investigators found that Epp had a folding knife in his pocket.
After a neighbor across the street who witnessed the encounter confirmed McNeil’s story, police determined that it was a case of self-defense and they did not charge him in the death. But, after almost a year after Epp’s death, Cobb County District Attorney Patrick Head decided to prosecute McNeil for murder. In 2006, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
McNeil spent more than six years in a Georgia state prison after the conviction that he said was in self-defense and was released from prison in February after pleading guilty to a lesser charge.
Zimmerman was found ‘not guilty’ in criminal court, but the federal civil rights investigation and a possible civil suit may be forthcoming. Despite the acquittal in criminal court, Trayvon’s parents could win in civil court, where a lower standard of proof is needed. A civil court jury can find Zimmerman ‘guilty’ if they believe he "more likely than not" is responsible for Trayvon’s wrongful death, as opposed to the criminal court, where a jury can find a person ‘not guilty’ if they have "reasonable doubt."