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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