Slate article on aftermath of Zimmerman acquittal has a good message and a lot of bad assumptions

I do have to hand it to Slate’s William Saletan for the article he wrote in response to the Zimmerman acquittal this week. He sat down to write an article, presumably, to blast the jury in the case for making the wrong choice but didn’t go through with it. I’m offering my applause not only for his forbearance but his admission as to why:

I almost joined the frenzy. Yesterday I was going to write that Zimmerman pursued Martin against police instructions and illustrated the perils of racial profiling. But I hadn’t followed the case in detail. So I sat down and watched the closing arguments: nearly seven hours of video in which the prosecution and defense went point by point through the evidence as it had been hashed out at the trial. Based on what I learned from the videos, I did some further reading.

It turned out I had been wrong about many things. The initial portrait of Zimmerman as a racist wasn’t just exaggerated. It was completely unsubstantiated.

Unlike many, Mr. Saletan did, in fact, get up to speed on the topic. I’m impressed. I was quite de-pressed listening to the hue and cry from those who didn’t agree with what the evidence showed and at listening to people continue to assert as fact early media allegations about what had happened that proved to be completely false. My own father-in-law, in speaking to me about the matter, repeated the media trope about how Zimmerman should have obeyed the police instruction to stay in his car. He was clearly surprised when I showed him emphatically that not only did the police never once order Zimmerman to stay in his car but that they utterly lack the authority to issue such an order. That Mr. Saletan rose above all that and did the research before writing is something I cannot help but admire.

My admiration is dimmed, however, by his continued presumptions outside of the evidence, the above notwithstanding. The overall message he’s trying to get across is that people are assuming racism in the verdict where none exists and that there were no angels on either side of this case. That’s all well and good. But even as he appears to be accepting the verdict as the only one that the law could support he continues to assume Zimmerman acted in bad faith and that he was someone supposed to know things in advance. Case in point:

That doesn’t make Zimmerman a hero. It just makes him a reckless fool instead of a murderer. In a post-verdict press conference, his lawyer, Mark O’Mara, claimed that “the evidence supported that George Zimmerman did nothing wrong,” that “the jury decided that he acted properly in self-defense,” and that Zimmerman “was never guilty of anything except protecting himself in self-defense. I’m glad that the jury saw it that way.” That’s complete BS. The only thing the jury decided was that there was reasonable doubt as to whether Zimmerman had committed second-degree murder or manslaughter.

Uh, no, that’s not “complete BS.” The jury did, in fact, find the defendant not guilty of 2nd-degree murder or manslaughter and they did so because they accepted that Zimmerman acted in self-defense. Saletan is perfectly allowed to consider Zimmerman a “reckless fool” but I’d really like to know what, specifically, Zimmerman did that night – with only the knowledge he had – that was so reckless or foolish. Saletan continues:

Zimmerman is guilty, morally if not legally, of precipitating the confrontation that led to Martin’s death. He did many things wrong. Mistake No. 1 was inferring that Martin was a burglar. In his 911 call, Zimmerman cited Martin’s behavior. “It’s raining, and he’s just walking around” looking at houses, Zimmerman said. He warned the dispatcher, “He’s got his hand in his waistband.” He described Martin’s race and clothing only after the dispatcher asked about them. Whatever its basis, the inference was false.

Zimmerman precipitated this confrontation? Au contraire… Let us simply look at the facts of the case. Martin is walking in the rain. Zimmerman sees him and perceives him to be looking at the houses suspiciously as opposed to attempting to make best speed to his destination to get out of the rain. He calls the police. Martin leaves the sidewalk and moves up between the houses. Zimmerman gets out of his vehicle to see if he can follow Martin. Zimmerman loses contact with Martin and tells this to police. (Pay attention to that last part, we’ll be coming back to it.) Zimmerman moves back to his vehicle and ends the call with police. Martin approaches Zimmerman from behind and confronts him. The fight ensues, Zimmerman shoots Martin.

Zimmerman was not the one who initiated the confrontation, Mr. Saletan, that was Martin. I would like take a moment to point something out that people appear to be glossing over. Martin allegedly knew Zimmerman was following him and that’s what caused him to speed up and leave the sidewalk. He was attempting to lose Zimmerman – and he succeeded. Zimmerman attempted to maintain contact but couldn’t. When he was going back to his vehicle it was because he had lost sight of Martin. If Martin’s aim was to disengage Zimmerman’s pursuit so he could walk to his father’s place unfollowed then he had achieved his goal. All he needed to do was wait for Zimmerman to leave or carefully make his way onward, staying out of Zimmerman’s view. He chose not to. He deliberately closed with Zimmerman and engaged. The moral weight of that confrontation went to the person who made the decision to initiate the contact and that was Martin.

As to Saletan’s depiction of “Mistake No. 1” I’d like to ask Mr. Saletan just what does a burglar who’s casing houses for future break-ins actually look like? He says that Zimmerman’s mistake was inferring that Martin was a burglar. Why was that a mistake? Is Mr. Saletan in possession of information the rest of us lack, that Martin was acting in a manner that was not consistent with the behavior of a burglar doing recon? If he’s not, then he can’t make the conclusion that inferring Martin was a burglar was a mistake. He can believe what he likes but, as he implies, the facts and evidence do matter here. If he doesn’t have any in this regard, then he’s calling a mistake  where he can’t really prove such.

Again, I applaud Mr. Saletan’s overall effort but his and other journalists’ continued skewing of the facts of this case are not helpful in getting people to avoid the oversimplification he sees as endemic.

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