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Monday, July 15, 2013

Charles Blow, "The Whole System Failed": "Extraordinary Inequality in the Presumption of Innocence"?

Do you remember the scene in the 1997 science fiction action film "Men in Black" in which James Darrell Edwards III (Will Smith), a New York City police officer, is tested for a position in a secret agency responsible for extraterrestrial visitors on earth?

Of course, the details concerning the tragic death of Trayvon Martin are anything but amusing. However, in this short scene from "Men in Black," we learn of the potential disastrous consequences of racial profiling - in the case of MIB, intergalactic profiling - of which most of us are guilty.

Now, consider what Geraldo Rivera had to say concerning Trayvon Martin's dress on the night of the incident in a Huffington Post article (

"Geraldo Rivera came down on Trayvon Martin's clothing again on Friday, arguing that the teenager's 'thug wear' led George Zimmerman to suspect that he was a criminal.

Bill O'Reilly hosted Rivera to discuss new developments in the case, including the discovery of low levels of marijuana in Martin's autopsy. Rivera argued that the marijuana is 'less powerful' than the convenience store surveillance tape, which showed what Martin was wearing.

'I think what's far more significant is what Trayvon Martin looked like on that night, Bill,' he said. 'Aside from the fact that he's dressed in that thug wear — look at the size of him, he’s not a little kid.'

'If this young man was a stranger to George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin looks just like the people who had been burglarizing and victimizing that neighborhood for the last six months,' Rivera continued.

When O'Reilly said that Rivera was 'profiling' Martin, Rivera claimed that the assumption was 'based on a reasonable comparison.'

Rivera made similar comments about Martin's clothing in March, when he insisted that the slain teenager's hoodie was partially responsible for his death."

Were Zimmerman's actions indeed "based on a reasonable comparison"? Did Martin's clothing provide Zimmerman with a reasonable basis to stop Martin? Was this an instance of racial profiling? But bear in mind that Zimmerman was not charged with "racial profiling."

In his latest New York Times op-ed entitled "The Whole System Failed" (, Charles Blow writes:

"This case is not about an extraordinary death of an extraordinary person. Unfortunately, in America, people are lost to gun violence every day. Many of them look like Martin and have parents who presumably grieve for them. This case is about extraordinary inequality in the presumption of innocence and the application of justice: why was Martin deemed suspicious and why was his killer allowed to go home?

. . . .

The idea of universal suspicion without individual evidence is what Americans find abhorrent and what black men in America must constantly fight. It is pervasive in policing policies — like stop-and-frisk, and in this case neighborhood watch — regardless of the collateral damage done to the majority of innocents. It’s like burning down a house to rid it of mice.

As a parent, particularly a parent of black teenage boys, I am left with the question, 'Now, what do I tell my boys?'"

Do racism and racial profiling exist in America? Absolutely, and regrettably I don't have answers for Blow's sons. Martin's death was an unspeakable tragedy. On the other hand, was the jury's decision incorrect? As stated by CNN (

"The jury had three choices: to find Zimmerman guilty of second-degree murder; to find him guilty of a lesser charge of manslaughter; or to find him not guilty.

For second-degree murder, the jurors would have had to believe that Martin's unlawful killing was "done from ill will, hatred, spite or an evil intent" and would be 'of such a nature that the act itself indicates an indifference to human life.'

To convict Zimmerman of manslaughter, the jurors would have had to believe he 'intentionally committed an act or acts that caused the death of Trayvon Martin.'"

Remember that in the US there is a presumption of innocence, and that "beyond reasonable doubt" is the standard of evidence required for a criminal conviction. Zimmerman claims that he was pinned on his back. His nose was broken, and the back of his head was lacerated. Was he acting out of fear, or, was he capable of the "intention" needed for conviction? Was there reasonable doubt?

Again, there is racism in America, and perhaps Zimmerman should never have stopped Martin, but did an "imperfect" American jury system reach the wrong verdict, or did the prosecution fail to meet its immensely difficult burden of proof? Did the prosecution "overreach" when deciding which charges to bring against Zimmerman?

The agony of Martin's family is very real - I cannot begin to fathom the pain of losing a child.

But for Charles Blow to "trash" the American jury system for reaching this verdict? This system makes mistakes - I thought O.J. Simpson's 1995 acquittal was wrong - but where do you find a better system in an imperfect world? You don't.

1 comment:

  1. I like your article and I find Blow's pompous and cheap "Now, what do I tell my boys?" irritating. Maybe he told something wrong before if he has a problem now. I don't read him now (I don't read any of them), but I read some pieces in the past and they tended to be shallow.