Earl Ofari Hutchinson's take on the politics of the day
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In two terse statements, Florida Fourth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Angela “tough on crime” Corey said that she would skip a grand jury and make a quick decision on whether to prosecute George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin. Corey gave no hint of which way she was leaning. She said simply that she would make her decision based on the evidence and testimony. Despite Corey’s neutral, bland, and very non-committal statements, there are worries about a prosecution, plenty of them. The first is Corey’s track record. She earned her legal nom de guerre of “tough on crime” by prosecuting more juveniles as adults than any other prosecutor in any other district in the country on a population adjusted basis. The overwhelming majority of them have been young men that look like Martin.
Corey’s penchant to throw the book at young black males raised racial suspicions about her ability to be impartial in the Martin case. But her tough on crime record supposedly offsets that. As a prosecutor with a hard-nosed record on crime and punishment, in theory anyway she should be ideal to take the toughest stance against a suspect in a potential murder case. But even if Corey can make a bias free decision on a Zimmerman prosecution she still must hurdle these obstacles: the absurdly high bar of a law that so far has shielded Zimmerman, the difficulty of winning a conviction, and the politics that have embroiled the case.
Florida’s stand your ground law bluntly states that an individual can initiate the kill solely based on their fear or belief that “the danger could be avoided only by using it.” It’s not exactly a license to kill, but it’s a license to take aggressive action if there is perceived danger. It’s loose, arbitrary, and subjective. But it’s the law. Nailing a killer that hides behind the law has been tough. The number of killings ruled justifiable in Florida in the seven years after the law was enacted in 2005 has tripled according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement data. FBI figures have shown that in the more than two dozen states that have variations of the stand your ground law, there’s a similar rise in dubious self-defense killings that have not been prosecuted.
Corey must next weigh the prospect of getting a conviction against Zimmerman. The failure to arrest or even detain Zimmerman, the initial sloppy, bungled police investigation, the possible destruction of forensic evidence, the drumbeat repeat by Zimmerman, his defenders, and by some in the media of his version of the deadly encounter are red flags. Then most importantly there’s the inability of the only other witness to what happened that fateful night to tell his story, namely Martin. These factors could easily make any prosecutor no matter how bias free pause.
If Corey decides to prosecute, Zimmerman will still have yet one other possible out. He can ask for an evidentiary hearing before a judge to determine if there is enough cause to order him bound over for trial. Again, this right is built into the law. This means Corey in effect has to try the case before the judge even before it gets to trial and a jury. These legal clouds have bedeviled the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, a national group. They have called the stand your ground laws and their escape hatch provisions a barrier to prosecution of genuine criminals.
Then there is the racial polarization that has inflamed the Marin murder. It took weeks to get any national publicity for the case and many charged that was because the victim was a young black, and the shooter a non-black, quasi authority figure. The relentless tossing about in the media of every scintilla of dirt that could be found on Martin, the legions that are more than willing to believe and defend Zimmerman, and the polls that show a sharp racial divide with a majority of whites that say the case has gotten too much attention, and the majority of blacks that dispute that are ominous signs.
None of these factors should in any way influence Corey in deciding whether to prosecute Zimmerman. But court and legal history has shown that in controversial, racially polarizing cases, it’s the height of naivety to think that prosecutor’s decisions are ever totally free of politics and public opinion. It boils down then to a law that licenses aggression under the guise of self-defense and how convinced Corey is that there’s enough evidence to overcome the barriers to nail Zimmerman. This is the test that will determine just how tough on Zimmerman tough on crime Corey will really be.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour heard weekly on the nationally network broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network.
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