Watching television Saturday night, I sat in stunned silence as the jury returned its ‘not guilty’ verdict for George Zimmerman in connection with the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. Then I was jolted by a comment made by prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda: “We live in a great country that has a great criminal justice system. It is not perfect but it is the best in the world and we respect the jury’s verdict.” In what country does de la Rionda live?
Surely, he couldn’t be referring to the United States. Granted, making the prosecutor prove his or her case against a defendant is a great idea. So is the notion of being presumed innocent until proven guilty. But when it comes to African Americans, this is by no stretch of the imagination ‘a great criminal justice system.’
I don’t say this out of any bitterness over the failure of the jurors to convict Zimmerman for murdering Trayvon Martin. Yes, I thought Zimmerman was guilty of murder or, at the least, manslaughter. But as much as it pains me, I must also acknowledge that the state of Florida did a poor job prosecuting Zimmerman.
Trayvon’s death is a cold reminder that the Black homicide rate is more than six times that of Whites. According to 2010 FBI statistics analyzed by the Violence Policy Center, the homicide rate for Black victims was 16.32 per 100,000, compared to a rate of 2.66 per 100,000 for Whites.
For Black women, the rate was 4.28 per 100,000, compared to 1.48 per 100,000 for White females. And African American men were homicide victims at a rate of 29.50 per 100,000, compared to 7.08 per 100,000 for White males.
“America faces a continuing epidemic of homicide among young Black males,” according to the introduction to a Violence Policy Center report titled, ‘Black Homicide in the United States: An Analysis of 2010 Homicide Data.’ The report, published in January, continued: “The devastation homicide inflicts on black teens and adults is a national crisis, yet it is all too often ignored outside of affected communities.”
And what happens when criminal cases move through America’s ‘great criminal justice system?’
Richard Pryor used to joke that criminal justice in the U.S. means “just us.” Although the comedian usually evoked a laugh (unlike Zimmerman lawyer’s knock-knock joke), this is no laughing matter.
American Progress, the Washington, D.C.-based think tank, collected some interesting statistics in a published article.
Among the facts:
• People of color make up about 30% of the U.S. population, but 60% of those imprisoned.
• Once convicted, Black offenders receive sentences that are 10% longer than White offenders for the same crimes. In addition, Blacks are 21% more likely to receive mandatory-minimum sentences than White defendants and 20% more likely to be sentenced to prison.
• Although African Americans comprise 14% of regular drug users, they are 37% of those arrested for drug offenses.
• Although Black juveniles are approximately 16% of the youth population, 37% of their cases are moved to criminal court and 58% of African American youth are sent to adult prisons.
• Blacks are twice as likely to be arrested during a traffic stop than Whites and four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with police.
News coverage and commentary on the Zimmerman trail demonstrated the toxic state of race relations in the U.S., despite having a Black president in the White House.
Geraldo Rivera said on Fox News Friday, “I see those six ladies in the jury putting themselves on that rainy night, in that housing complex that has just been burglarized by three or four different groups of Black youngsters from the adjacent community. So it’s a dark night, a 6-foot-2-inch hoodie-wearing stranger is in the immediate housing complex. How would the ladies of that jury have reacted? I submit that if they were armed, they would have shot Trayvon Martin a lot sooner than George Zimmerman did. This is self-defense.”
This is the same Geraldo Rivera who said last March: “I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman.”
Fox News even invited Mark Furman, the former detective for the Los Angeles Police Department, to discuss the role of race in jury selection for Zimmerman’s trial. Lawyers for O.J. Simpson presented evidence that Furman had used the ‘n-word’ more than 40 times over a 10-year period. Yet, Furman, who pled no contest to perjury charges and sentenced to three years of probation, appeared on Fox News’ America Live to talk about race.
When Zimmerman earlier selected Fox News as the only network he would grant an interview to, he was right at home.
(George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his website, <www.georgecurry. com>.)