George Zimmerman Trial: Why it matters

10:06 AM, Jun 10, 2013   |    comments
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The George Zimmerman trial will shine a spotlight on Florida's self-defense laws and its justice system in general, as well as on race relations in the state and on the Sunshine State's reputation for making a hash out of almost anything since the 2000 presidential election fiasco.

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That's why the trial of George Zimmerman, starting Monday and playing out over what could be weeks or even months, is worthy of your attention.

1. "Stand Your Ground"

Sponsors of the law said it was needed to ensure that law-abiding citizens weren't subjected for homicide charges for simply defending themselves. Critics said it threatened to turn Florida into a 21st century version of a Wild West town.

Those critics now point to the Zimmerman case as a prime example the law's faults.

A special task force set up by Gov. Rick Scott, though, supported the law, though it did recommend clarifying some of its language.

Zimmerman waived the right to a pre-trial "Stand Your Ground" hearing, but his attorneys can raise the self-defense issue again at trial.

"I think the 'Stand Your Ground' law is a necessary thing. But in this case, the way the law was applied was devastating," said the Rev. Glenn Dames, a community activist and president of the North Brevard Ministerial Alliance. Dames organized protests against the law and plans to be in Sanford during the trial.

"The hastiness in deciding not to file charges in this case turned me off. It actually entangled the spirit of the law, which tells you that you have the right to defend yourself. The law itself needs to be reviewed but it's too blurry. Just because you approach me on the street and I don't like it, I can shoot you. ... It is the epitome of the wild, wild West," Dames said.

No matter the outcome of Zimmerman's trial, expect continued heated arguments over the law.

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2. Race relations

From the beginning, race was an integral factor of the death of Trayvon Martin and what happened afterward.

Would Zimmerman have tagged Martin as a "real suspicious guy" if the teenager were white? Would the Sanford police have investigated the case differently? What if Zimmerman - who is Hispanic - had been black? Would that have changed the authority's initial decision that there were no grounds for prosecuting? What if Martin had shot Zimmerman and then claimed he did so because he felt threatened by Zimmerman's trailing him through the neighborhood?

Those arguments may or may not be raised in the courtroom, but they will certainly be central to much of the outside talk about the case.

"We as an organization are glad that finally the general public will get an opportunity to hear the complete facts of the case and, hopefully, justice will be served," said Bill Gary, president of the North Brevard branch of the NAACP.

3. Neighborhood watch programs

Neighborhood watch programs, such as the one Zimmerman volunteered for, are becoming more common. But critics say Zimmerman went beyond his observer role to become a vigilante when he followed Martin throughout the neighborhood, despite police direction not to do so.

The same task force that supported the "Stand Your Ground" law recommended to the state Legislature "to define the role of neighborhood watch participants as limited to observing, watching and reporting potential criminal activity to law enforcement. The participant's purpose is not to pursue, confront or provoke potential suspects."

Cocoa Police Sgt. Eric Austin is the head of that city's Community Resource Unit, which includes crime watch programs like Volunteer Citizens on Patrol. Those citizen volunteers patrol in special marked cars and report suspicious activity over the radio.

"We encourage citizens and participants of crime watch groups, if they see something suspicious or they see a crime, to call us," he said, adding, "We do not encourage them to address criminal activity. The police have the technical training and the skills and equipment and tools to address criminal activity."
4. Faith in the legal system

No matter the outcome, a large number of people will be unhappy with the result.

If Zimmerman is acquitted, some will believe a hot-headed vigilante got away with murder. If he is found guilty, others will believe an innocent man who was defending himself against an attack by a thug was convicted of murder.

Complicating matters is the role social media has played in the case so far. Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites have been rife with "facts" about the case, many of which were inflammatory and untrue, and statements about the guilt or innocence of either party, indicating that many observers' minds are made up, regardless of the evidence set to be aired in court.

The widespread distribution of such information creates a serious question of whether a truly unbiased jury can be found for the case.

Melbourne attorney Keith Szachacz, of Funk, Szachacz & Diamond, said he believes an impartial jury can be found. He suggested some people may lie to get on the jury, and some may lie to get off. In either case, attorneys will have to carefully vet those people via a series of questions.

"I think because of the sensitive issues involved, it will definitely take longer in this case," Szachacz said. "The bottom line is, if a juror can honestly testify, 'I can decide the case based on what is presented at trial and not what I've seen on the news or in the newspaper,' you can find a fair and impartial jury."

5. Another black eye

Thanks, perhaps, to best-selling authors Carl Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey and others, many people believe Florida is filled with freakish serial killers, corrupt politicians and inept police agencies. And the 2000 presidential election convinced large portions of the world that Florida could be counted on to mess up just about anything, no matter how important.

That's not a good reputation for a state whose economic lifeblood is tourism dollars.

And the daily national trial coverage that is certain to dominate daytime TV will imprint the words "Sanford, Florida" on watchers' brains. Unfortunately for Florida, hundreds of thousands of visitors a year arrive at the Sanford airport, the community where the shooting took place.

"I don't think it's the kind of public relations you want to have in the state or the region," said Sean Snaith, director of the Institute for Economic Competitiveness at the University of Central Florida's College of Business Administration. "It colors people's perception of the state. I think it's horrible, in that regard. It's not the type of public relations to attract business or tourism."

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