Judicial Reform Research Project
The Trayvon Martian Case
America is the land of freedom, prosperity, and justice. That is what many Americans would like to believe, but it is not the reality for every American. For people of color in America, freedom, prosperity, and justice sometimes hold different meaning or not much meaning at all. The American justice system particularly seems to be heavily questionable to people of color because many of them seem to suffer under the system than gain from it.
With our current judicial system it is not a surprise that people of color occupy many of the prison cells or are repeatedly wronged in the court system. Unfortunately, there are many cases to support these statements. One of those being the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martian and the court case that let his killer, George Zimmerman, walk free. This project covers the history behind the Judicial court and people of color, the current controversy behind the Trayvon Martian case, and how in the future we can prevent something like this case from happening again.
The Judiciary act of 1789 was signed by George Washington on September 24th. It was an act to establish the first Judiciary courts in America. Article III of the U.S constitution allowed a supreme court ,but also allowed congress the power to create lower federal courts. This is all at a time where slaves also weren't considered even a whole person, just 3/5ths of a person. Throughout slavery, Jim crow, and up to now, the U.S judicial system has made itself loud and clear that it was not made to protect or give justice to black people and other people of color.
After the Emancipation proclamations of 1863, “Black Codes” were created in the southern states during 1865 and 1866 to suppress the freedom of black people. These laws didn’t allow for black people to do much of anything anyone else had the freedom to do such as, testify against a white person in court, serve in juries or vote. If charged with a crime or accused black people were put up against all white jurors who would find them guilty and severely punish them wether they were actually guilty or not. If a white person was accused of committing a crime against a black person they usually weren’t convicted or made to suffer any consequence.
“In Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892), Ida B. Wells notes the injustices experienced by African Americans within the criminal justice system. While conducting a broad study of lynchings in America, she found that African Americans were often shot, hanged, or burned to death for minor offenses such as testifying in court, disrespecting Whites, and failing to repay debts.” (Hampton 1).
A well known trail that highlights the courts racist history is the trial of Emmitt Till. Emmitt Till was a 14 year old black boy accused of whistling at a white woman. He was kidnapped, beaten severely, shot in the head, and sunken in the Tallahassee river. When his mother opened his casket he was unrecognizable. The crime was committed by two white men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam. Both white men were acquitted by an all white, all male jury of any charges.
Today, with the 15th amendment African Americans are allowed to vote. Today black people are allowed to testify against anyone or serve on a jury. Supreme court rulings have been passed civil rights laws and rulings such as Brown vs Board, but discriminatory and racist undertones of past times still linger in the present U.S court and judicial system. Today there are many cases where the courts have continually failed people of color. In cases involving the shootings and beatings African Americans such as Rodney King, Sean Bell, and Oscar Grant, courts failed to even charge officers of their wrong doing or they are convicted on low charges not equal to their crime. Problems are also seen with mass incarceration of people of color heavily from crime/drug arrest rates.
With the Trayvon Martian case it was just another story of the courts failing to deliver justice to people of color. Trayvon was a 17 year old black boy from Miami Gardens, Florida who was shot and killed by neighborhood watch George Zimmerman when he was walking home from a store. Zimmerman apprehended Trayvon after racially profiling him and then there was an altercation that resulted in Zimmerman shooting and killing Trayvon. With mishaps from the police department and debates left and right the case gained national news. Zimmerman claimed self defense and was acquitted in 2012 by an all woman jury with a majority white seating. The entire world was watching this court case and it sounded all too familiar.
There were many protest after and before the trail and many hearts and hopes absolutely shattered as people of color realized again and again that the justice system has a hard time providing them justice.
The Trayvon Martian case is one that is brought up again and again. Why? because the same thing seems to be happening over and over again. The court systems seem to repeat themselves with cases like this every year where an unarmed person of color is shot or killed, ,but their killers are getting away with sometimes not even a slap on the back of the hand. With an inherently biased system the courts continue to fail people of color to this day.
The controversies of self defense, gun rights, racial profiling, and the court system all became heated arguments after and during the Trayvon Martian case. People were wondering what exactly can be described as self defense? Should neighborhood watch be armed? How does racial profiling play a part in all of this and how often does it happen? Why are the courts doing this over and over again? The debate is still going on today where one side is speaking and the other seems to not be listening. According to the NAACP, “One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime” (NAACP 1). Shootings of people of color by police are also a heated debate. Police officers who shot and kill people of color unjustifiably and even with staggering evidence against them get away with acquittal.
Many people have weighed in on the Trayvon case, one of them being former president Barak Obama who stated “Trayvon Martin could’ve been me 35 years ago.” The case has impacted the countries view on the “Stand Your Ground” law. The Tampa Bay Times found that “200 cases in which Florida’s stand your ground law was invoked, almost 70% of the accused had gone free. The accused were much more likely to face no penalty if a black person had been killed (73%) than if a white person had been killed (59%)“ (Tampa 1)
The opposing argument to the Trayvon Martian case is that Zimmerman’s case of self defense was legitimate and the court ruling was right and unbiased. The medical evidence brought in is said to back up Zimmerman’s story that Trayvon was trying to grab his gun and kill him. It is debated the Zimmerman had every right to do what he did. Di Maio, a former longtime San Antonio chief medical examiner said “He’s obviously been punched in the nose and hit in the forehead” (MiamiH 1).
Even with situations like this happening very often and even with public outcry about them the courts remain the same and the system remains the same.
There is no easy solution to this. With a system that was built bias it is going to have to go under extreme reconstruction or be made new to actually start to benefit those it was never made to protect. Today the controversies continue and so does the public out cry to change how things are. This has to be addressed for the sake of this country’s future. People of color are part of this country’s future they will want the same visions of freedom, prosperity, and justice that the system gives to everyone else. With more people being aware of what is happening, more people are going to speak out and more people are going to show resistance to the current system that may or may not benefit them.
The one big proposal to address this the underling racism and discrimination within the judiciary system in the criminal justice reform, which has a lot more to do with mass incarceration. Criminal justice reform will use litigation and advocacy to slowly uproot racial discrimination in the system. For example an idea from the SPLC would include creating policies and laws that keep communities safe and shrinking the amount of people in jail while also reducing the social and economic impact of mass incarceration on minority communities
The system can not fully benefit those it wasn’t created to benefit in the beginning and since racism and discrimination is deeply rooted within the system I think that the only way to truly fix this is to first start acknowledging that there’s a problem with the system to beginning with. If we do not do that then there is no way that we can move on to create a better judicial system that will in the end benefit every American. People will continue to voice their rights and their resistance and resistance comes in many forms, some good and some not so good. For the sake of this country Its important that we address these issues so that they do not boil up and explode and so we do not lose or waste any more lives.
Benn, Evan S. “Forensic Expert Says Evidence Backs George Zimmerman’s Story.” Miamiherald. Miamiherald, 9 July 2013. Web. 03 May 2017.
“Black Codes (United States).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 09 Apr. 2017. Web. 03 May 2017.
“Criminal Justice Fact Sheet.” NAACP. NAACP, 2017. Web. 03 May 2017.
Jones, Chenelle A. “A Critical Analysis of Historical Racial Disadvantage in the Criminal Justice System.” The System Isn’t Broken, It Was Designed That Way: A Critical Analysis of Historical Racial Disadvantage in the Criminal Justice System I The Hampton Institute. The Hampton Institute1, 25 July 2013. Web. 03 May 2017.
Pilkington, Ed, and Richard Luscombe. “Trayvon Martin: How a Teenager’s Death Sparked a National Debate.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 13 July 2013. Web. 03 May 2017.
“Primary Documents in American History.” Judiciary Act of 1789: Primary Documents of American History (Virtual Programs & Services, Library of Congress). Library of Congress, 25 Apr. 2017. Web. 03 May 2017.
Weinstein, Adam. “The Trayvon Martin Killing, Explained.” Mother Jones. Mother Jones, 8 Mar. 2012. Web. 03 May 2017.