The two trials of Zimmerman: ‘The Wire’ v. ‘CSI’

By Neal Gabler
July 15, 2013

Now the jury has spoken on the question that riveted the public and filled cable news to the gills: Whether George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, murdered a black teenager Trayvon Martin because he happened to be a black kid in the wrong place at the wrong time and in the wrong outfit.

It is hardly a mystery why this tragedy exploded into the trial of the year. It was not just about Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence. It was about the state of race relations in America —  about our racial guilt or innocence.

Alongside that trial, however, was another one — not about race, but allegedly about evidence and law. This second trial continues to get its share of media attention.

But there’s a problem when a trial’s racial components and its legal elements don’t mesh. Most of us were watching a racial drama, even as Zimmerman’s courtroom defense seemed intent on presenting a legal drama. It was “The Wire” vs. “CSI” a story submerged in social context versus one based on police procedural.

This creates a major disconnect for the public. Watching the trial, one might have hoped that Zimmerman’s acquittal or conviction would be determined by how the jury objectively read the evidence — and that’s how Zimmerman’s supporters have viewed it. But the protestors and demonstrators see this ruling as something else — as the verdict of the racial trial.We saw this same disconnect with a vengeance in the Rodney King trial in Los Angeles in 1992. The racial and political context of that trial was unmistakable. King, a black construction worker who was severely beaten by a group of white Los Angeles police officers after a late night car chase, seemed to symbolize every African-American who had ever been victimized by the system. In some ways, he was less a man than a metaphor.

That was certainly the way the media covered his trial because, like the Zimmerman case, that element was the key reason to cover it as a story that demanded national attention. But the trial itself, the actual courtroom presentation, was something else again. It purported to be a careful examination of fact.

A bystander’s videotape of King’s beating and arrest was subject to frame-by-frame scrutiny — as if it were the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination. The was a careful tally of the punches thrown on each side, like a boxing match determining a winner, and exhaustive discussions of King’s state of mind and toxicology.

The courtroom, in effect, decontextualized King’s beating — removing it from the very thing that had made it compelling in the first place. When the policemen were acquitted, the black community erupted. They realized that they had been watching the wrong trial.

O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, on the other hand, was an instance in which the first trial, the racial trial, overwhelmed the second trial, the forensic one. Oh, sure, there were all sorts of forensics — blood stains and timelines and the famous glove that didn’t fit. But when the verdict came down, just about everyone seemed to think it was a racial verdict — a largely black jury ignoring the evidence to redress a century of abuse.

The Zimmerman trial more closely resembles King’s. The focus on forensics — the 911 recordings, the position of the wounds, the introduction of “critical stress amnesia” to exculpate Zimmerman’s faulty memory — trumped the focus on racial profiling of which Zimmerman’s opponents had accused him.

But while this may be trumpeted by Zimmerman and his supporters as a triumph of objectivity over emotion, of rationality over prejudice, that is not necessarily the case. For the fact is that the “CSI” trial, with all its tiny dissections, is no more likely to produce justice than the racial trial.

Sometimes all that evidence-sifting can just be a smoke screen to allow the jury to get the outcome it has wanted all along. Or put another way, the pretense of looking at the facts may have its own prejudice — which makes any usual distinction between the trials artificial.

This is not just a problem for a public that has taken sides. This is a problem for justice itself. If it is nearly impossible, finally, to extricate the truth from our own visions of the truth, it is equally impossible to arrive at an unimpeachably just conclusion.

The fight now raging in the living rooms, churches, bars, streets and salons of America and in the media over Zimmerman’s real guilt or innocence is a function of the basic imperfection of our legal system. An imperfection made more glaring by the racial aspect.

We like to think there is a truth, when in fact there are many truths. We all select our own — depending on which trial we were watching.

Just ask anyone who is cheering or lamenting the verdict today.


PHOTO (Top): George Zimmerman stands when the jury arrives to deliver the verdict as his attorneys Mark O’Mara (L) and co-counsel, Don West (2nd L) and Lorna Truett (2nd R) await the verdict in Sanford, Florida, July 13, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Burbank/Pool

PHOTO (Insert A): Rodney King delivers an appeal calling for an end to rioting in Los Angeles, May 1, 1992. REUTERS/Lou Dematteis

PHOTO (Insert B): Defendant Sgt. Stacey Koon (C), one of four Los Angeles Police officers accused in the videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King, is escorted by defense attorney Darryl Mounger (R) from the Simi Valley, California, Superior court following his acquittal April 29, 1992.. The acquittal sparked the six-day Los Angeles Riots. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

PHOTO (Insert C): Rev. Anthony Evans, president of the National Black Church Initiative, speaks during a demonstration asking for justice for Trayvon Martin, outside the Justice Department in Washington July 15, 2013. REUTERS/Jose Luis Magana


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Awful lot of words thrown on paper that say nothing new or different from how things have always been. Waste of reading time.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

If it was self defense starts if and when he was battered by some one more fit than himself. He was not on trial for racial harassment (there should be law against harassment if there is none). If acted in self defense the only question is if he was seriously battered, first by Martin. I read one Zimmermann got a broken nose (the papers change their story and I was following it much). Unless the prosecutor could prove he did not get it from Martin, the evidence points to self defense.

I guess it must impressed on the public and teachers children must made keep their hands to themselves before they become teenagers with adult strength. They will live in world of people of all sizes, sex, health and fitness and will tend end up in jail, shot or stabbed if they do not.

Obviously to most people you can declare self defense if you where battered people more skilled violence first ot threatened with a weapon first. For small, weak or sick people self defense will involve a weapon. They cannot be expected out run a particularly fit attacker. Laws saying to do so ignore reality.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

Personally, I neither cheered nor lamented. It’s a sad tale, no matter which way you look at it! Trayvon Martin lost his life, and George Zimmerman lost his liberty: first through custody awaiting trial, and now, through the menacing lynch-mobs and racially charged media (representing and feeding the baying crowds), who have eternally identified his person with this “trial”. He has lost his identity. The common man on the street will now be pestering every George Zimmerman lookalike.

When I hear of trials like those you mention, I wonder whether the USA really is “the land of the free”, and “the home of the brave”?
What is brave about “protesting” a reasonably rational trial verdict (with selectively promoted evidence of course), arising from the best system of justice that we can muster?
Where is the honesty in the selection of photos for the placards: showing Trayvon Martin as an innocent, defenceless smiling child?
What do they mean by “JUSTICE for Trayvon Martin”? Do the “protesters” want TWO dead people instead of one?
How would they feel if the boot was on the other foot (from their racially biased perspective): would they have paid this case more than five minutes’ notice, if a white 17-year-old common criminal had been shot dead by a black/Hispanic vigilante in a gated community where he wasn’t supposed to be? Would they be protesting with their placards?
Why do they still identify with Trayvon Martin? Are they somehow convinced now, that the evidence of involvement with drug dealing etc. is somehow a dirty deed by the “establishment” to blacken Trayvon Martin’s name? Or do the protesters and “reverends” perceive drug-dealing as a normal profession?

During last year’s election campaign, polls showed white people were voting for both parties in roughly equal numbers, but black Americans were voting 90-95% down racial lines! 90-95% of black people were voting for Obama. I’m sure they thought they had good reasons for supporting Obama OTHER than the color of his skin. Some of them weighed the options fairly, no doubt. But at 90-95% politically polarized, when the rest of the community is evenly divided; I must conclude (when reflecting also on “legal” cases like this one) that at least 1/3 of the black people who voted for Obama originally decided to do so because “Obama is one of us”, “he looks like us”, “he lives like us”, “change you can BELIEVE in” (as opposed to change you CAN’T believe in — no substantive discussion of why not, apart from confirmation of prejudice) etc.; and then after deciding to vote for Obama, they made up some political “cover story” or excuse for voting that way. That’s the story the polls and protests are telling me.
I’m totally against racism, segregation, apartheid, prejudice. But this is an issue. It undermines democracy! Can we somehow agree on a better way? Can we ALL please start to regard those who don’t look like us, and who come from other cultural backgrounds, as human beings?
I’d like to see more black protesters and hear more black reverends speaking over the next few months in favor of George Zimmerman’s rights, and warning of the dangers of involvement with guns/drugs/fighting and the need to get proper schooling. If there are any, will the journalists please report on it, as penance for their part in this frenzy when aping the common thirst for blood?

I had a minor court case (over a vehicle collision, not my fault) that went to trial a few years ago. My own lawyer cheated me. I suspect he was in cahoots with the defendant’s lawyer. I gave him photographic evidence before the trial that 100% proved perjury by the defendant in her affidavit. My lawyer totally failed to mention or present this photographic evidence in court, instead, leaving me exposed to the defending lawyer’s questions after the judge invited my lawyer to speak! The district judge made personal insults against me that were totally unjustified, probably to goad me into appealing the case (drum up more business for the legal profession?) I could have taken that case to appeal (at my own risk and expense), I could have had my pound of flesh (instead of paying more attention to my wife and children); but my wife bravely told me to drop it: for the thousands of dollars I lost (which I absolutely couldn’t afford to lose), it’s simply not worth allowing my whole attention to get consumed by this with anger and a search for a kind of perfect justice that simply doesn’t exist in this world. We just have to accept that, and leave it to God to deal with these people as He sees fit.

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

p.s. What made matters even worse in my trial was that my lawyer gave my photographs to the defendant’s lawyer before my trial, without consulting me first; and then didn’t present this evidence in the trial when he had chance to do so. Sometimes it’s no wonder that people think the legal profession is corrupt… But as pointed out by Neal Gabler, the Trayvon Martin case isn’t the right metaphor for people’s racial prejudices and frustrations. It’s a warning sign that we need to change our attitude.

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

For a lot of us out here, it was the Stand Your Ground law that was on trial – and it won hands-down. A dangerous precedent has been set. It’s open season for anyone with a grudge and a gun. Frightening.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

Apparently Gabler is so morally confused and intellectually challenged by the whole affair that he, like the rest of the racists of color, can’t distinguish the difference between a society that prefers chaos and mob rule, and a society that loves peace and respects the rule of law.

You clowns can walk around out there all day with your stupid signs and your ignorant opinions but the fact will remain Zimmerman was lawfully acquitted by a duly appointed court having proper jurisdiction in the matter. All available evidence was presented. A jury saw this evidence, and determined the man was not guilty of the crimes he was charged with.

And all that being said it comes down to just a one simple thing: We will NOT allow a man to placed into double or triple jeopardy at the demand of a crowd thugs, malcontents, and manipulated idiots, and we will NOT tolerate violence in our streets

Posted by HamsterHerder | Report as abusive

Open your mind and take race out of it altogether. Imagine that Zimmerman and Martin were white. Would it still be a tragedy? Yes. Would there have been a trial? Probably not. Would the story have made national news with constant coverage? I don’t think so. Our media refuses to let this drop because race is always a good story, and must continually be brought forward and inflamed by our press, and the few black leaders that base their fortunes on it.

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive

cnn tries to stay relevant… it is the reason they are playing this game… americans do not like cnn anymore… they are losing ratings… cnn is a disgrace…

Posted by Ocala123456789 | Report as abusive

As regards the big case in Sanford, I know the attorneys & the judges professionally; just like I know key counsel & judges in the Casey case even better. This is because I retired from the Ninth Judicial Circuit, Orange County, Orlando, Florida, 32801, after eleven years, where I worked as a civil servant, electronically recording & transcribing all manner of proceedings, & in the meanwhile getting to know so many of the judicatory countenances nowadays in the media limelight . From the moment ochlocratic pressure was brought to bear down upon the Seminole County State Attorneys intake division to the State’s histrionic, if not comedic, closing argument, the highest principle of our American justice system stood unmoved, & for the simple reason that to overcome the presumption of innocence the government must prove beyond & to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt that the offense was committed. When two sides claim to hear different voices on a recorded 911 call, reasonable doubt can hardly be more conspicuously evoked. As for his part, the President of the United States failed miserably to defend our system of justice, showing either that Harvard may not be a worthy law school to attend or that Obama has no genuine sympathy for the three-tiered system our founders so wisely instituted. Thus he merely calls for calm to assuage an ochlocratic element unworthy of any serious attention in the first place, & in the second will no doubt find this brief essay incomprehensible. -OttĂł Tamás; Orlando, Florida; Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Thirteen.

Posted by Doctordialogue | Report as abusive

In addition, Gabler is more or less calling for the resumption of racial trials & the dominance of subjective over the objective considerations in judicial matters. Flatly un-American.

Posted by Doctordialogue | Report as abusive

To say nothing of the irresponsibility of the following clause: “…but allegedly about evidence and law.” What else is a trial supposed to be about? And I’m unemployed. Come on Reuters, you can do better than this.

Posted by Doctordialogue | Report as abusive

Martin’s death was racially motivated.

Let’s take what Zimmerman said to the dispatcher at face value. People usually say exactly what they mean. Zimmerman referred to Martin in an extremely racially derogatory way. He profiled him and pursued him. If Zimmerman hadn’t been a fanatical cop-wannabe with a desire to use his gun, angry about his fact that “they always get away” he wouldn’t have pursued Martin.

Many people openly talk about Martin’s past as a “thug” as though Martin was behaving like a “thug” walking down the street – as though Martin deserved to die because of his past as a “thug” and a “punk”. But those same people don’t want to take Zimmerman’s past into consideration as a vigilante with a bad temper and a gun. Zimmerman wasn’t pure either, but still, no one should have died that night.

Speculating on what would have happened if Martin had been white or Zimmerman had been purple is purely hypothetical. The facts are: Zimmerman is Hispanic and Martin was black.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

jl4 is still confused it seems, please cite the 9/11 call where Zimmerman was racist. Hint the FBI does not agree with what you heard.

punks because Zimmerman is too young to even use what you heard which lost usage in the 80′s.

Posted by VultureTX | Report as abusive

The last four paragraphs of this article are banal at best, meaningless at times. School-level writing.

This is a bland and poorly written piece. Think of the talent out there that could be given a chance to flourish.

Posted by onsra | Report as abusive

Isn’t this case about self defense and whether or not any individual has the right to defend themselves (including the use of deadly force? Few seem to consider how we would respond when threatened in a similar manner? Whether or not we, as individuals, have the right to act violently towards any other individual without consequence? If there is any lesson it is that of avoiding confrontation and that physical assault portends potentially lethal results. In the split seconds our instincts for self preservation take over there is insufficient time to reflect on racial bias.

Posted by pcyoung | Report as abusive

The dialog has been divisive rather than constructive. The black church community should promote after school education to keep kids off the streets and motivate those that are salvageable from the “street Culture”. Volunteer tutoring should be aggressively sought from all racial backgrounds. On line courses appealing to and at targeted educating minorities should be made available to local community centers. The government should support this effort by rewarding successful GED graduates with a two year community college tuition grant, or appropriate vocational training to prepare skills for the job market. Business should receive tax credits for hiring/training interns, and graduates from this program. Only when solutions to the root of the racial problems (education, poverty, jobs, drugs, etc.) are addressed will the profiling issue be systematically eradicated. More laws or wishful thinking will not alter the present conditions.

Posted by FLsleeper | Report as abusive