In a press conference immediately after George Zimmerman was acquitted, State Attorney Angela Corey declared “this case has never been about race.”
The legal team for the Trayvon Martin family disagrees. In an interview with ThinkProgress, Natalie Jackson — one of three lawyers representing Trayvon Martin’s parents — said the prosecution’s “biggest mistake was to ignore race.”
Jackson emphasized that she thought Corey and her deputies were skilled, passionate about the case and pursued the strategy they thought would work best. But Jackson also believes that the state’s decision to ignore the role race played in the case was a major strategic error and may have allowed Zimmerman to escape a guilty verdict.
By deliberately avoiding any discussion of race, Jackson said, the state made “everyone feel comfortable and when everyone feels comfortable bad things happen.”
Throughout the trial, the defense subtly leveraged racial issues to their advantage, according to Jackson. She said a picture of Martin that defense attorneys frequently showed the jury, where he is shirtless, was designed to play into “stereotypical fears people think white women have of black men.” Jackson would have objected to its use.
Jackson would have also objected to the testimony of Olivia Bertalan, who testified that Zimmerman helped her after two black men in their late teens broke into her home in August 2011. She later related her experience to Zimmerman. Jackson believed the purpose of Bertalan’s testimony was to “group black boys” and “would have done everything possible to strike her.”
The decision to ignore race cost the prosecution before the trial even began, according to Jackson. She noted that the state attempted to strike two jurors, B-6 and B-76, from the pool. It was the defense, at that point, who brought up race, arguing that the state was only striking these jurors because they were white women. The judge sided with the defense, and Jackson believes that the state should have pressed their case more forcefully, noting that — at that point — all African-American jurors considered had been struck. B-76 questioned the appropriateness of Trayvon Martin being out at night to buy candy.
Jackson noted that the delay in Zimmerman’s arrest tilted the jury pool in favor of the defense. Anyone who participated in a “Justice For Trayvon” rally or liked a Facebook page expressing solidarity for Trayvon was struck from the pool. Had Zimmerman been arrested promptly, the rallies and other efforts would not have taken place. As it happened, anyone in the area inclined to feel sympathy toward someone like Trayvon was automatically excluded from the jury pool.
Another error cited by Jackson was the failure to recognize that the police, who usually work hand-in-glove with the state, was adverse to the prosecution. Major police witnesses frequently undermined the state case, most notably lead detective Chris Serino who stated he believed everything Zimmerman told him was truthful. (That testimony was struck by order of the judge the next day, but the damage was done.) Jackson believes the police had an interest in undermining the state’s case. If Zimmerman was convicted, Jackson surmised, it would make the decision not to arrest him look much worse.
Even though Zimmerman had a history of reporting young African-American men in his neighborhood to the police, the judge banned the term “racial profiling” from being used at any point in the trial. One juror told CNN that race was not discussed at all during deliberations. On Thursday morning, Trayvon Martin’s father had an entirely different perspective: “I think that if Trayvon had been white, this never would have happened.”