What if George Zimmerman had followed the direction of the police dispatcher and remained in his car, allowing police officers to apply their professional judgment to what concerned him — Trayvon Martin walking in his neighborhood? Almost certainly, Martin would be alive today, and there would not have been a much-watched investigation and trial.
That question still hovers, three days after the jury returned its verdict in Sanford, Fla., finding Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter. Florida law, and its generous room for claims of self-defense, may have required such an outcome, the jury decision deserving respect. The prosecution may have fumbled, its witnesses lacking precision, or seemingly confused. What lingers is the disturbing string of events on that rainy February evening 18 months ago.
A young black man walks home with an iced tea and a bag of Skittles, hood over his head, unarmed, doing nothing suspicious. Yet Zimmerman, on neighborhood watch, stalked him, carrying a 9mm pistol, the advice of the police dispatcher cast aside. A confrontation ensues. The man with the gun kills the unarmed teenager.
Zimmerman set the sad episode in motion, the aggressor with the advantage of deadly force — who ultimately contends he felt threatened enough to pull out his gun and fire.
The jury instructions stressed that the danger facing Zimmerman “need not have been actual.” Rather, “a reasonably cautious and prudent person” need only believe the danger was so great that deadly force was required. The question arises: What was reasonably cautious and prudent about Zimmerman ignoring the dispatcher?
That question wasn’t directly before the jury. Neither was the matter of race, though it was ever present in the courtroom. The Justice Department has reason enough to review the case to see whether there is cause for a federal prosecution under civil rights laws. What now will black parents tell their sons about handling such situations? Advise them to avoid feeding suspicion? To behave well? That is just what Trayvon Martin was doing when George Zimmerman got out of his car.