Vigorous Defense or Racial Appeal? But what about justice for Trayvon?

Yesterday I wrote a piece reflecting on the ways that both the defense and the media had put Trayvon Martin on trial.  During subsequent conversations, I further lamented the defense strategies and how a common response has been, “but the defense is suppose to put on a rigorous defense.”  I don’t question the right to put on a defense (although most people who face the criminal justice never put on a defense – we are a plea bargain nation – and most certainly don’t have access to experts and America’s best lawyers) but rather that the Zimmerman defense has not only put on Martin on trial but has done so through explicitly racial means.  The efforts to paint Trayvon as a violent “thug,” as someone with “violent tendencies,” as a marijuana smoking, gun toting, menace to society moves beyond a rigorous defense.  The “Menace to Society” or “Young Black and Don’t give a Fuck” stategy is antithetical to justice.  Jelani Cobb describes the tactics as akin to the defense strategy seen within rape trials:

The contours of the defense, like a great deal of the discussion of this case, are shot through with an antiquated brand of rape-think. What was he wearing? Was he high or drunk? Why was he out at night? Beneath these questions is a calcified skepticism toward Martin’s innocence that all but blurts out ‘He was asking for it.

Just as rape culture has allowed for the criminalization and victim blaming in rape trials, white supremacy facilitates this type of defense; it encourages and allows for the prosecution of black victims.

Trayvon Martin is the victim and highlighting the purported victim’s past, playing upon racist stereotypes, and otherwise turning the trial into one about the character of Trayvon Martin moves beyond vigorous defense.  His life matters and to make the case into one where he deserve to die because he may have smoked marijuana or gotten into a fight is counter to justice.

The efforts to criminalize Trayvon Martin, to blame the victim, must be understood within the larger context whereupon Trayvon Martin’s right to defend himself has been denied. As Jelani Cobb argues, the mere fact that Trayvon Martin has been consistently represented as someone undeserving of his right to stand his ground or defend himself against in the face of an armed man following him allows for victim blaming:

Amid their frustratingly uneven presentation, Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda and the rest of the prosecution have pegged their second-degree murder charges largely on the idea that Martin was losing the fight on February 26th of last year, that he shouted for help, and that Zimmerman, a vigilante would-be cop, shot and killed him anyway. In plotting their route to conviction, they necessarily bypass another set of questions. What if he wasn’t losing the fight? What if Zimmerman is the one who called for help? What if Martin did swing first? And, most crucially, is an unarmed black teenager ever entitled to stand his ground? . . . . But whatever its legal merits, the prosecution’s approach has left intact the suspicion that Florida’s proactive self-defense laws are color-coded, intended for people in fearsome encounters with blacks, not blacks in fearsome encounters.

This is of course not a statement about the defense but the criminalization of Martin and the seeming impossibility of his right to defend himself, which gives me pause.

Still, others continue to cite the fundamental principal of a vigorous defense as justification for any defense strategy.   The question here is justice; the question is fairness; the question is facts versus stereotypes; relevance versus racial appeals.  The defense’s deployment of the race card toward the criminalization of the victim warrants challenging inside the courtroom.  That hasn’t happened; the challenges outside the courtroom are imperative.

“The problem, to me, is the broader framework of white supremacy that allows certain anti-Trayvon questions/narratives to be viewed as compelling and persuasive to jurors,” notes Marc Lamont Hill.  “In other words, I don’t have an issue with questioning Trayvon’s character as such. I have an issue with his race, age, or fashion choice being seen as evidence of criminality. That, however, isn’t a criminal justice problem.”

I do have a problem with it because given the juries are told to just listen to the evidence; given that the Judge disallowed references to racial profiling; given that colorblindness is promoted as the solution to injustice; given that a court of law exists in the broader context, this vigorous defense is not only prejudicial but reliant on stereotypes, bias, and a system of injustice.  While Judge Nelson has limited what is admissible (vigorous defense has constraints and rules) the damage has been done in court of public opinion.

Within the court and beyond, the criminalization of Trayvon Martin is not just about Martin but also about blackness.  The strategy isn’t simply about Trayvon Martin but putting blackness on trial.  It not only shares the same logic and ideology that leads to stop and frisk but furthers the stereotypes of the “criminalblackman.”  So efforts to compare this to another defense whereupon a white victim was put on trial doesn’t account for this fundamental issue.  Whether the defense in the Jodi Arias trial, O.J. Simpson trial, or countless others employed tactics that questioned the character of victim is irrelevant.  These are fundamentally different because in these instances, stereotypes about whiteness were not part of the defense; white masculinity or whiteness was not put on trial. Here lies the core issue: the justice system, as an American institution, is fundamentally antithetical to justice and fairness when it comes to black life.  This trial is yet another reminder of this fact, although this won’t be admitted into evidence.

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