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Starla Muhammad


( - With George Zimmerman arrested and charged with second degree murder in the shooting death of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin, the manner in which this case is handled could be a potential turning point in how Blacks in America continue viewing the  legal and criminal justice system. The justice system has a historical record of disappointing the very people who are often victims of that same system. Black legal experts are monitoring proceedings closely, carefully and with unique a perspective.

Mr. Zimmerman made his first court appearance April 12 and a judge set the formal arraignment for the self-appointed neighborhood watch captain who killed 17-year-old Mr. Martin, for May 29. Prosecutors appear to have gone for a middle of the road approach opting for second-degree murder, a charge below first degree but above the manslaughter charge anticipated by many.

“With second-degree murder and, therefore him being charged by information compared to being charged by indictment, means that the state cannot seek the death penalty but the maximum that he can serve is life in prison,” said Michelle Delancy, a criminal defense attorney in Florida.

An April 20 bond hearing is set in which the judge has several options Atty. Delancy told The Final Call. First- and second-degree murder charges typically carry no bond but there are exceptions including setting a high bond, stipulation of a monitoring device or revoking a passport. “The idea is that the judge has to determine whether or not he’s a flight risk. And of course as might be expected is that the more significant the charge, the more likelihood you are to flee,” said Atty. Delancy. Ties to the community are also taken into consideration, she added. If bond is not granted and he remains in jail, Mr. Zimmerman’s defense attorney will move the case along as quickly as possible, she predicted.

The state has 180 days to bring the case to trial if it even gets that far. Any possibility of a plea deal would depend upon how much evidence the state has against Mr. Zimmerman for a solid case. There is also the possibility the judge could dismiss the case.

“With a case like this that has high publicity that has people who are pushing for the maximum pretty much, I’m certain by human nature that the prosecution is under some pressure to not just give him a slap on the hand, a slap on the wrist and that’s it.”

Atty. Standish Willis of Chicago thinks the Zimmerman case will be difficult to prosecute because there is no retreat provision in Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law which 28-year-old Mr. Zimmerman used as justification for the Feb. 26 shooting.

“The Stand Your Ground provision allows a self-defense without what we call in Illinois and other states, ‘without retreat.’ Let’s say I confront you in the street and you have a right to defend yourself, the law generally wants you to try not to defend yourself particularly if it’s using deadly force. That’s the retreat provision.  You’re supposed to do something to avoid it if you can … walk away from it. The Florida law doesn’t require that. You don’t have to walk away if somebody is threatening you,” explained Atty. Willis, noted for his years of tireless work in defending victims of police brutality and misconduct in Chicago.

“I think it’s going to be a difficult prosecution. The standard for this second degree doesn’t seem to be one that’s very easy to prove by the prosecution especially with this defense they have in Florida.”

Atty. Willis said regardless of statements to the contrary made by Florida prosecutor Angela Corey, he is not thoroughly convinced the case is being prosecuted aggressively enough. Based on his experience, prosecutors do not aggressively go after police or other law enforcement officials for killing Black people.

“I think Zimmerman is very closely identified with the police community in the area. He wanted to be the police. He’s out there acting like the police. Because of that I think they will try to protect him in any way they can. Police will try to protect one of their own,” Atty. Willis told The Final Call.

Professor Vernellia Randall is a law professor at the University of Dayton. She said the current race-based caste system in the U.S. is “every bit as onerous as Jim Crow and maybe moreso.”

“I teach law, I teach race and racism in American law and as a matter of fact I’m just finishing my 24th year. We have had a repeat of history,” Professor Randall told The Final Call.

“The Stand Your Ground laws now takes us back to Dred Scott, 1857, even pre-Civil War. Because now a White man with a gun can shoot and kill you because he’s afraid. Florida is the most extreme state in these Stand Your Ground laws,” said Prof. Randall, who is also editor of “Race, Racism and the American Law.”

 “I don’t know how much I can separate Michelle Delancy, the attorney, with Michelle Delancy, the Black woman who is looking at this. I have two sons and they’re going to be teenagers before you know it. Certainly, you look at it from all perspectives,” said Atty. Delancy.

Atty. Delancy said if the Zimmerman case proceeds to trial, regardless of the outcome, it will affect the future of the controversial Stand Your Ground law. When the law was first signed by then Florida Governor Jeb Bush, she recalls getting several telephone calls from friends who jokingly said, “This means I can pull out my gun and shoot anyone and say that I am standing my ground.”

“As a lawyer, I remember thinking, Wow, if they get that impression out of this law. It will be really interesting to see how this law plays out because I wasn’t reading it that way. This Stand Your Ground law really is a self defense law. It was originally formulated as a protection of your property law and it has since been expanded to you know what, I don’t even have to just use equal and opposite force. If I feel threatened, I effectively can kill you. That’s not okay on any level.” It is not a good law as written, added Atty. Delancy.

“The problem here becomes is this is the beginning of people shooting Black people who approach them out of some fear so that adds that other element that was in legal apartheid?” said Prof. Randall.

“In legal apartheid there was two different elements. One element was a denial of certain legal rights and the other one was terrorism through vigilantism. And now we’ve got both,” she added.

“No matter what happens with Zimmerman there can never be true justice because of the law that will remain. For Trayvon Martin and his family justice will be Zimmerman getting life and I hope that happens,” she said.

“He (Zimmerman) might be at the forefront of this whole thing in Florida but he won’t be the last one if the law stands and if they continue to promote Black people as dangerous,” said Prof. Randall.

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