You can be found not guilty in a court of law, but that doesn't mean you didn't do something terrible. —Gene Demby, NPR
Justice is supposed to be the American way. But the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin has revealed two starkly different visions of what Americans think justice should be.
What is justice for Martin — the 17-year-old black youth, mourned by many as a victim who was minding his own business when he fell under misplaced suspicion? What is justice for Zimmerman, seen by many others as a good neighbor who made a fatal mistake?
The national conversation over the verdict shows two sides talking about two different things: either the two minutes when Zimmerman and Martin fought face to face, or the centuries of racial context that many believe caused a senseless death.
The debate also has revealed deep resistance to the idea that justice in this case might not be black and white, but could include a gray area with important parts of both visions.
"Is justice getting the bad guy?" asks Gene Demby, who writes about race for National Public Radio's "Code Switch" blog.
"So many of us," he says, "have very different ideas of what the bad guys look like."
Martin and Zimmerman each thought he was the good guy on a rainy night in February 2012.
Zimmerman, a Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer, spotted Martin, who was simply walking home from the store wearing a hoodie. Zimmerman called police to report a "suspicious" person "up to no good." Martin, on his cell phone, told a friend that a "creepy-ass cracker" was following him. They fought — testimony differed regarding who was on top of whom — and then Zimmerman shot Martin once in the chest.
Zimmerman said he killed Martin in self-defense. A jury of six women — five white, one described as Hispanic, none black — found him not guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter.
Among the things jurors were instructed to consider was whether Zimmerman believed he was in severe danger during the fight with Martin. What led to the fight was not the issue, according to the only juror who has spoken publicly.
The juror, who did not allow her name to be used, told CNN that Zimmerman didn't use "good judgment" and he shouldn't have gotten out of his car. But she believes that Martin attacked Zimmerman, and that he had a right to defend himself.
Says Richard Lowry, editor of the National Review, the conservative magazine: "It was a terrible tragedy, it never should have happened, Zimmerman showed awful judgment, it has placed an unspeakable burden on the Martin family — but it just wasn't a crime."
Glen Weekley, a software salesman from Georgia, says Zimmerman may have profiled Martin.
"But that does not go back to the core issue of whether justice was served. Of course it was. It's completely illogical to say anything else," Weekley says. "He was not on trial for confronting him or profiling him or following him."
This view of justice is focused narrowly on the two minutes that Zimmerman and Martin fought. Guided by the law, this view excludes everything before those fleeting seconds — such as the belief that Zimmerman thought Martin was suspicious because he was black.
Those who decry the verdict want a broad justice that accounts for how race affects society. They think justice should hold Zimmerman accountable for causing the fatal encounter by racially profiling Martin, then following him against the instructions of the police dispatcher.
"The justice system is essentially saying that context doesn't matter," says George Ciccariello-Maher, a history and politics professor at Drexel University. "It's not illegal to be a racist stalker — that's extraneous to the legal question of self-defense."
Rashad Robinson, executive director of the black advocacy group Color of Change, says the verdict shows "the American justice system is not colorblind, it is not fair."
"We can't have this discussion about whether the letter of the law is fair," Robinson says, "because the law is influenced by our culture — by bias and media depictions and all the other things that play into how judges make decisions, how police make decisions, how juries make decisions."
Many people don't know the racial history that influences current attitudes, says Randolf Arguelles, director of a tutoring center in San Francisco.
"If the jurors knew the sociological, cultural, and historical precedents for the specter of black male criminality, and how these tropes are propagated in mass media, then perhaps they would have viewed Trayvon as the kid he was, instead of the life-endangering black menace that justified Zimmerman's homicide," Arguelles says.
That idea boils down to a simple statement for Tina Williams, a high school guidance counselor from Philadelphia:
"Society has it set that we should be scared of black men, period."
Justice, broad or narrow? Two minutes of a fight for survival, or the real world, full of racial history, that surrounds those two minutes?
Demby, the NPR journalist, raises a third option: Justice does not have to be a binary choice.
It's possible, he says, that "George Zimmerman could have racially profiled Trayvon, and still also felt at that moment that his life was in danger."
But the idea that lethal self-defense was justified doesn't sit well with many people.
Blair L.M. Kelley, a North Carolina State University history professor, says Zimmerman's judgment was suspect from the moment he mistook Martin for a criminal, so it's "bizarre" to acquit him based on what he thought was real.
"Must we always take the mind of the person with the gun as the bench by which we must measure?" Kelley says.
Others resist the idea of racial profiling: "He may have singled out Martin for his youth, his dress, or his behavior; he might have been just as suspicious of a white teenager dressed and acting the same way," the National Review wrote in an editorial praising the jury's decision.
In the end, the verdict points to an American justice that can be imprecise, arbitrary or unsatisfying — even to the victors.
"Is justice fair to everybody?" Demby asks. "I don't know, that's what so messy about this."
"You can be found not guilty in a court of law," he says, "but that doesn't mean you didn't do something terrible."
Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. He is reachable at http://www.twitter.com/jessewashington.