In my experience, whenever criminal cases turn into symbolic melodramas, reason goes out the door. I'm referring to the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin murder trial currently dominating cable TV news channels. What began as a lamentable tragedy was promoted as a multimedia morality play on the theme of racist brute vs. innocent child.
In consequence, millions of Americans gullible enough to believe what they see on TV developed passionate beliefs about the case..
During a recent online colloquy, a woman identifying herself as a Seattle criminal defense attorney (you never really know on the Internet) opined that the only reason George Zimmerman hadn't been forced to plead guilty was that "the police did not do a proper investigation, and handled the case poorly (seriously, Martin is found with a cellphone on him, and they decide they can't ID him and let his body sit in the morgue for a week?? That alone is unbelievable) ... I find it appalling that a small town police agency thought they themselves could make a legal finding that a homicide was justified."
Unbelievable indeed. Also categorically false, although MSNBC reported it many times. According to the case file released last May 18, Sanford, Fla. police notified Trayvon's father of his death early the next morning. MSNBC personalities Al Sharpton, Melissa Harris-Perry, Lawrence O'Donnell and others also repeatedly alleged that indifferent local cops let George Zimmerman take his gun home, and failed to collect his clothing for forensic examination -- also untrue. Indeed, the detective who handled the initial investigation recommended filing manslaughter charges March 13, 2012.
So did Zimmerman "profile" Trayvon Martin? Indeed, there had been a rash of burglaries and break-ins in the multi-racial Twin Lakes community in the months preceding the fatal confrontation. Most of the suspects were young black men, and most did, in fact, get away. Had he known that, maybe young Martin might have acted differently when he felt himself followed.
But it's impossible to know, partly because nobody knows exactly how he DID act.
However, to convict George Zimmerman of second-degree murder, a jury must imagine this scenario: Determined to kill an innocent stranger, a man first dials 911, stays on the phone while stalking his victim, remains at the crime scene rather than fleeing, surrenders peacefully, waives his Miranda rights and voluntarily answers hundreds of police questions.
Hard to believe, no?
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons can be reached at email@example.com.