A Response to Jonathan Capehart’s Editorials In Regards to the Zimmerman Case

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This month, Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post published three opinions regarding the Zimmerman Case: The 'rabid' hate aimed at Trayvon Martin, Playing 'Games' with Trayvon Martin's image, and 'Stand Your Ground' eludes Robert Zimmerman. These three editorials draw attention to aspects of the Zimmerman Case that should be addressed; however, Mr. Capehart's positions betray his clear presumption of Mr. Zimmerman's guilt, which is fine in the context of an opinion piece, but in order to make his point, he must overlook some clear issues that are important to the broader social relevance of this case. He must also overlook the significant forensic evidence that supports George's claim of self-defense, and that FBI documents related to the civil rights investigation show no evidence that George acted in a racially motivated way that night (to the contrary, they illustrate examples of George as a non-racist who has a colorblind life philosophy). Mr. Capehart's voluntary decision to ignore this information bespeaks his willingness to craft his message without care for accuracy. Again, we understand that such is wholly allowed in an opinion piece, but we suggest his responsibility as a journalist should also impact his presentation.

The Zimmerman Case has become a flashpoint in the conversation about racial injustice. While we contest that any racial motivation played a role in the Zimmerman Case, we are compelled to use the notoriety of this case to begin a realistic, honest conversation about racial injustice. But here is a warning: to focus so intently on George Zimmerman, and to equate a civil rights victory to a Zimmerman conviction cheapens the conversation and threatens to drive us further apart. If the Zimmerman Case is to be the catalyst for conversation about race, then we owe it to ourselves to have a complete and nuanced understanding of all the factors involved.

The 'rabid' hate aimed at Trayvon Martin

Mr. Capehart published this opinion on February 5, Trayvon Martin's birthday. Capehart writes:

That Trayvon brings out the worst in people is well known. What continues to shock me isn't so much how widely held the negative view of him is, it is how openly people express their racism.

He quotes a tweet from Todd Kincannon:

@DAWNCATHERINE I appreciate you! I agree that Trayvon Martin was a dangerous thug who needed to be put down like a rabid dog.

Here's where we can agree with Mr. Capehart: the tweet quoted and the sentiment expressed is revolting. We can also agree that conversation about this case, particularly online conversation, can very quickly turn ugly, angry, and racist. What Mr. Capehart doesn't address is that the hate and racism comes from all sides of the debate, and for every disgusting quote he can show us suggesting "Trayvon Martin got what he deserved," we can show two quotes that suggest George Zimmerman deserves to be raped in prison or that someone should kill him before trial.

We follow the online conversation about this case very closely, and we feel most of the people who write these ugly things don't mean them literally. We won't speak specifically for Todd Kincannon, and we do not deny that there are unrepentant racists commenting on this case -- from both sides -- but for the most part, we believe these comments come from a place of frustration and anger.

In regards to George, if you feel that George profiled Trayvon Martin because of race, then it is natural for you to ascribe to George all the anger you have ever felt as a result of being racially profiled yourself. Very few people actually know George, but many people think of George Zimmerman as the manifestation of the racism they have encountered in their lives, and while their feelings are understandable, they are also misplaced.

In regards to Trayvon Martin, remember that a public relations firm was hired to draw national media attention to the shooting, and there was a selective presentation made of Trayvon Martin's character. It turns out the presentation was not the whole story, and many people who bought into the initial mischaracterization of the case felt betrayed as details emerged. Many feel the "race card" is being played at the expense of George's right to due process, and they, in turn, feel threatened themselves. The anger they feel is understandable, but it is also misplaced when directed at the memory of Trayvon Martin.

Playing 'Games' with Trayvon Martin's image

A day later, Mr. Capehart published an opinion called Playing 'Games' with Trayvon Martin's image in which he describes criticism he drew for using a specific photo of Trayvon Martin with his editorial. He writes:

Many folks took issue with the picture I used yesterday and again today -- that of a smiling, fresh-faced Trayvon wearing a red T-shirt from Hollister, the mass clothier of adolescence.

Here he describes the now-iconic photograph of Trayvon Martin that has been used countless times in the presentation of this case by the press. The reason the photo draws criticism is because it shows a younger Trayvon Martin than the 17 year-old who encountered George Zimmerman on the night of February 26, 2012. Estimations of Trayvon's age in the photo range wildly, and the Zimmerman defense team has never verified it. In his editorial, Mr. Capehart reports that Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump says the photo was taken in August 2011.

Even if Crump is correct, there are obvious differences found when comparing the photo of Trayvon in the red T-shirt, with more recent photos of Trayvon released by his family, and the 7-11 security footage of Trayvon the night of the shooting. On the surface, it seems like a ridiculous pursuit to note the difference between these photographs, but here is the important distinction: it is lunacy to think that the "fresh-faced" boy in the red T-shirt could successfully physically assault George Zimmerman -- which is George's claim, and it is no stretch to believe that the young man pictured in the 7-11 security footage could.

We understand the red T-shirt photo was provided to the press by the Martin family, and no one can fault them for presenting their son in the best light considering the tragic circumstances. But this photo was used as part of the media campaign orchestrated by the Martin family attorneys to have George Zimmerman arrested, and in the context of the shooting, the red T-shirt photo is a wild mis-representation.

A contributor to the defense fund provided the following comment with his donation:

A friend that doesn't have PayPal gave me $10 to donate for him. He says he saw a picture of Trayvon Martin that was not the one in the red shirt and thought he had been tricked.

This donation came the evening we made the press aware of the photo of Trayvon Martin that police documents recognize as the photo Trayvon's father gave to law enforcement as an aid to identify his son when he believed Trayvon was missing. We think the facts surrounding this photo make it a much more relevant and appropriate photo to use in reporting about the Zimmerman case.

In his editorial, Capehart describes receiving an email from a reader claiming to have a more up-to-date photo of Trayvon. The photo was of rapper Game -- clearly much older, with tattoos on his face. There are other photos on the Internet, which people claim represent Trayvon that are clearly not, and there are other photos yet that may be Trayvon, but have not been authenticated.

We contend that there would be far less "playing 'games' with Trayvon Martin's image" if the press stopped using the misleading red T-shirt photo in its reporting. The red T-shirt photo has come to represent the rampant misrepresentation that characterized the early reporting of the case. Moreover, the red T-shirt photo was provided to the press as part of a documented public relations campaign, and since this is known, and since there are more appropriate photos available, any journalist who uses this photo is making an editorial decision that betrays their position on the case. With respect to Mr. Capehart, we understand his editorial was in fact opinion, but if he reads this, hopefully he will understand that not all the criticism he received came from angry racists.

'Stand your ground' eludes Robert Zimmerman

In this editorial, Mr. Capehart quotes George's brother Robert who is conducting an aggressive media campaign. Robert appeared on "Real Time with Bill Maher" and said "Stand Your Ground is not a factor in this defense," which Capehart asserts, ". . . should come as a surprise to Zimmerman's lawyer Mark O'Mara." Since Mr. Capehart is ascribing a position on "Stand Your Ground" to Mr. O'Mara, lets be clear: the Zimmerman defense team is not presenting a "Stand Your Ground" defense.

Florida Statute 776, which is entitled "Justifiable Use of Deadly Force," is the law that codifies the long existing right to self-defense we have as citizens. In 2005, the Florida Legislature amended that to include the provision commonly known as "Stand Your Ground." It also gave a person the right to be free from arrest, prosecution or trial -- if that person acted in a reasonable fear of imminent great bodily injury at the hands of someone else.

As to the "Stand Your Ground" portion, the Legislature expanded self-defense to include a right of not having to retreat before utilizing deadly force. While that right always existed in one's home (the Castle Doctrine), the 2005 Legislature expanded it to any place where you are allowed to lawfully be. Under that portion of the statute, a person does not have to retreat before utilizing deadly force if that person has reasonable fear of imminent great bodily injury.

If the "Stand Your Ground" portion of the law was to be applied to the Zimmerman Case, even if George had an ability to retreat, he would not be required to do so before utilizing deadly force. In this particular case, George did not have an ability to retreat because he was on the ground with Trayvon Martin mounting him, striking blows, therefore the "Stand Your Ground" "benefit" given by the statute simply does not apply to the facts of George's case: it is traditional self-defense. Of course, the immunity provision still does apply, and we will take full advantage of the immunity afforded by the Florida Legislature.

In August, we published an article called There Will Be A 'Stand Your Ground' Hearing in the George Zimmerman Case. The article was meant to show that we believe George Zimmerman's act of self-defense was lawful and justified, and that he should have the benefits of prosecutorial and civil immunity offered by Statute 776. Since then, whenever we have referred to such a hearing, we have more appropriately referred to it as a Self-Defense Immunity Hearing. The Judge has set a court date of June 10 for the Zimmerman trial, and a Self-Defense Immunity Hearing is scheduled for April 22.