Behold Lady Justitia balancing her scales while standing blindfolded between a rock and a hard place. The goddess of justice is a sight. She's trying, but the environment in the sunshine state of Florida isn't friendly.
Whatever we know about the death of Trayvon Martin, 17, at the hands of George Zimmerman, 28, doesn't make us optimistic about finding out what we don't know. We know it was in a gated community that Zimmerman, a volunteer crime stopper of Hispanic extraction, shot Martin, an African-American teenager. We don't know whether Zimmerman had a lawful excuse or committed a crime, and have little faith that a politicized legal process can tell us.
While doing his rounds as neighbourhood watchman, Zimmerman became suspicious of Martin. The youngster seemed "up to no good" to him, a type that "always gets away." We know this because Zimmerman phoned in his suspicions to the police before starting to trail Martin, though advised by the dispatcher not to do so. A short time later, another caller to the police reported an altercation, followed by the sound of gunshots.
A lawful excuse for shooting someone in most jurisdictions, including ours, is self-defence: Warding off a threat of death or grievous bodily harm. In Canada, the question is somewhat academic as few are permitted to carry firearms, and our perpetrator-friendly law obliges people to retreat as far as they can before entitling them to defend themselves. In victim friendly Florida, law-abiding adults may carry guns and, if assaulted, may "stand their ground" -- that is, shoot, without first having to back into the Everglades.
Zimmerman's story was that he feared for his life and defended himself. The local authorities handcuffed him initially at the scene, then investigated, concluded the evidence didn't support criminal charges, removed his handcuffs and sent him on his way.
We don't know whether the authorities were right or wrong to absolve Zimmerman of culpability. We know that Martin's family found it outrageous. So did the black community and, before long, a cross-section of the American public. Martin was unarmed. All he had in his pocket was some candy he was taking to his date. He was handsome. His family members were vocal and articulate. They played the race card convincingly. Soon they had the media in their corner. There were demonstrations, news conferences, and flocks of demagogues descending from the northern feeding grounds of identity politics. When President Barack Obama remarked that if he had a son, he'd look like Trayvon, it was game over.
The local authorities resigned or withdrew from the case. The Governor of Florida appointed Angela Corey as special prosecutor, who announced that her team would be guided solely by the evidence. She said it with a straight face, without letting her nose grow one millimetre. A day or two later, Zimmerman was charged with murder.
There are win-win situations in life. So it's logical for lose-lose situations to emerge as well. There are cases that leave a sour taste in one's mouth, whatever the outcome. We know that in the prevailing climate, Zimmerman isn't likely to get an unbiased hearing. Unfair as this is, we also know that without this climate, without the vultures of race circling overhead, Zimmerman wouldn't be on trial at all, which would be unfair to Martin and to his intense, photogenic family -- perhaps unfair to justice, too.
Whether a community-minded citizen or an officious busybody (the two are closer to each other than they appear in our mirrors) and even if a trigger-happy toad, Zimmerman may not have had the malicious intent necessary to make Martin's shooting murder. In a fair trial, we might find out -- but we suspect a fair trial is one thing Zimmerman isn't going to get.
Zimmerman's is a political trial. This means no matter how it's resolved, the resolution won't seem fair to those who have resolved it differently in their minds. Can we say that not charging Zimmerman would have served justice better? Hardly. We can only say that Florida's justice system wouldn't have charged him on its own. Does this make political trials unfair? No. It only makes them political.