By NICK CHILES
The lawyers for accused murderer George Zimmerman went so far in trying to impugn the character of slain teenager Trayvon Martin that they actually had to issue an apology over the weekend.
Although Judge Debra Nelson has ruled that pictures, video and text messages from Martin’s cellphone are not admissible at trial, defense attorney Mark O’Mara last week claimed in court that a video recorded by Martin showed two of his friends beating up a homeless man.
But yesterday the defense team was forced to release a statement apologizing for giving incorrect information, saying the video actually showed two homeless men fighting over a bicycle. The defense team statement said Martin and a friend came upon the fight and Martin had merely recorded it, which is wildly different from alleging that they were part of the fight.
In his statement, O’Mara described his mistake in court as unintentional. He said he was unhappy about it.
“We have been committed to disputing misinformation in every aspect of this case, not causing it,” the statement said.
With just a week to go before the trial starts, the tension is beginning to mount—the possibility that we could see an O.J. Simpson-type outbreak of black outrage if the jury in Seminole County sees fit to let Zimmerman walk. Seminole County is just 10 percent black and the jury will have just six members—making the likelihood of an all-white jury very high in this case.
It’s been fascinating watching the Zimmerman lawyers try to assassinate the 17-year-old in the court of public opinion. They have been throwing out every detail they can find about the teen to plant the seed in the public eye that he deserved everything he had coming to him because, after all, he was a scary black teen. So they released the torrent of pictures, text messages and videos from Trayvon’s phone that O’Mara and his merry band of lawyers surely knew they had no chance of getting admitted during trial. Here’s Trayvon maybe wearing a gold tooth. There’s a hand that may be Trayvon’s holding a gun. Here’s a text message with Trayvon talking about guns. There’s one with him talking about marijuana.
In an article in the Huffington Post, writer Mark Pinsky called this the “thug defense.”
“In that narrative, the 17-year-old victim would be portrayed as a menacing figure, slinking around in the darkened, gated community, who attacked Zimmerman — rather than the other way around,” Pinsky wrote.
There’s a wink, wink aspect to everything that O’Mara and company are doing, a cynical and troubling case they are building to let white people know that this kid was no different than the scary black teens they see walking down the streets in their cities and ‘burbs, with pants sagging, faces scowling, demeanors that terrify every white person (and many blacks) within a mile’s radius.
I’ve been a black man in this country for decades, and I have a son who turns 21 in just two months, so I am all-too-familiar with the white public’s reaction to the scary black male. By connecting Trayvon to every intimidating black teen on every urban and suburban street, O’Mara is sending a clear signal to white America: Don’t feel sorry for this kid because he’s the same as the rest of them.
It’s this same inclination to see “criminal” instead of child when greeted with the average black teenager that led police in Miami to brutally body slam and choke 14-year-old Tremaine McMillian when they confronted and arrested him on a beach while he was bottle-feeding his puppy and rough-housing with a friend in the surf. Police said the boy’s “dehumanizing stares” directed at officers, together with his body language, presented a threat.
When I interviewed him for the series on black boys that I wrote for Ebony magazine, University of Pennsylvania psychologist and professor Howard Stevenson told me the criminal justice and educational systems are much too quick to see black boys as inhuman adults rather than children under stress. This allows for the extreme reactions like Zimmerman exhibited in Sanford or the cops demonstrated on that Miami beach.
What O’Mara is trying to do is make sure the public doesn’t have a chance to see Trayvon as a child under stress. That will be the key to the upcoming trial—is he a boy or a man, an intimidating threat or a scared kid trying to defend himself? The jury soon will be deciding the answer to that question—with millions of worried eyes looking over their shoulders.
1. A Year Later, Trayvon Martin Stays Lodged in the Psyche of Black Parents
2. 911 Tapes In The Trayvon Martin Killing Reveal He Begged For Help; Zimmerman Shot Twice (UPDATE)
3. Teenager Killed in Florida by Neighborhood Watch Brings Terror To My Heart
4. Another Black Boy, Another Senseless Murder When Will It Stop?
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.