A standing-room-only crowd of students, faculty and staff filled STEPS 101 on Wednesday to hear a panel of Lehigh scholars share perspectives on the 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and the subsequent trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman, which led to a national dialogue on race, the criminal justice system, “stand your ground” laws and the proliferation of guns in America.
Moderated by Lloyd Steffen, professor of religion studies and university chaplain, the panel included James Peterson, associate professor of English and director of Africana Studies; Monica Miller, assistant professor of religion studies and Africana Studies; Dominic Packer, assistant professor of psychology, and Matthew Melone, professor of finance and law.
The event was the first in a series being organized by the university’s MLK Committee, which is aiming for a year-long discussion
in the Lehigh community of the racial and societal issues that concerned the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Calling the Trayvon Martin story “one of the most important social justice cases in my lifetime,” Peterson discussed the role of media—particularly social media—in bringing the case to trial.
“I know you can have fun on Facebook and Twitter, but people are making serious, serious moves on social media platforms,” said Peterson, who pointed to the public pressure on prosecutors to rethink the Marissa Alexander case in Jacksonville, Florida.
Alexander, a mother of three, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for shooting a gun in her home to scare off her estranged husband when she felt he was threatening her. Although no one was injured, Alexander received a 20-year prison sentence from a judge, who said he was bound by the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws.“Tragic but not isolated”
Public pressure through social media forced a new trial for Alexander, Miller said. Public pressure, she added, also shut down a pending book deal arranged by a juror in the Zimmerman trial who appeared to identify with Zimmerman based on public comments she had made.
Miller and Peterson drew parallels from the Trayvon Martin case to convey what they view as a deep historical sense of institutionalized oppression, from slavery, to Jim Crow laws, and to a prison complex they say is permeated by racial bias.
The Martin case, Peterson said, was a “tragic, but hardly isolated case.”
Melone focused on the specifics of the Florida laws that shaped the case. He said he was not surprised that jurors acquitted Zimmerman, who admitted shooting the unarmed teen as he was walking back to his father’s home in a gated community where Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch volunteer. Mitigating factors, Melone said, included prosecutorial overreach, existing laws, the absence of eyewitnesses, inconclusive evidence and the jurors’ narrow directive.
“The jurors were not equipped to address the broader issues of racial profiling, ‘stand your ground laws’ and the role of guns, which loomed over this trial,” said Melone, who emphasized that the combustible mix of those three issues is an ongoing “recipe for disaster.”
Packer cited research studies that indicate racial bias impacts verdicts in a number of ways since “racial stereotypes shape what people see, what they remember and how they act.
“These combined in aggregate continue to impact our criminal justice system,” Packer said. “You see it in the administration of the death penalty, in the disparity in incarceration rates, even in mistaken shootings of police officers.”Drawing parallels with Emmett Till
Miller quoted French philosopher Voltaire: “To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.” The Martin case, she said, was disturbingly reminiscent of that of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after reportedly flirting with a white woman.
After they had been acquitted in a five-day jury trial, two white men later admitted to kidnaping and killing Till. They were not incarcerated. The shocking brutality of the manner in which Till was killed and the lingering anger over the injustice of the case have led historians to view Till’s murder as a pivotal event in the civil rights movement. Ongoing racial inequality, said Miller, “continues in our criminal injustice system.
“This case wasn’t about George Zimmerman being a racist, or every young man in a hoodie being a thug. George Zimmerman was able to make choices knowing that the legal system would validate those choices. Those laws show the bankrupt dimension of our system. When ‘the other’ tries to stand his ground, he gets beaten, judged or marginalized.”
Panelists and audience members also discussed recent campus developments, including the formation of a student group that is seeking to draw attention to diversity issues.
“I love what’s going on here,” said Peterson. “I love that environment. I’m sorry if some of you are uncomfortable, but there are people here who live an uncomfortable existence every day.”
He also acknowledged the university support for a re-organized MLK Committee that is planning events throughout the year.
“It’s already paying dividends,” he said, referring to the strong attendance of the committee’s first event. “Maybe we can get out in front of some things.”