What killed Trayvon Martin?

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Trayvon Martin is dead, George Zimmerman has been acquitted and millions of people are outraged. Some politicians are demanding a second prosecution of Mr. Zimmerman, this time for hate crimes. Others are blaming the tragedy on "stand your ground" laws, which they insist must be repealed. Many who saw the case as proof of racism in the criminal justice system see the verdict as further confirmation. Everywhere you look, people feel vindicated in their bitter assumptions. They want action.

But that's how Mr. Martin ended up dead. It's how Mr. Zimmerman ended up with a bulletproof vest he might have to wear for the rest of his life. It's how activists and the media embarrassed themselves with bogus reports. The problem at the core of this case wasn't race or guns. The problem was assumption, misperception and overreaction. And that cycle hasn't ended with the verdict. It has escalated.

I almost joined the frenzy. At first I was going to write that Mr. Zimmerman pursued Mr. 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 Mr. Zimmerman as a racist wasn't just exaggerated. It was completely unsubstantiated. It's a case study in how the same kind of bias that causes racism can cause unwarranted allegations of racism. Some of the people Mr. Zimmerman had reported as suspicious were black men, so he was a racist. Members of his family seemed racist, so he was a racist. Everybody knew he was a racist, so his recorded words were misheard as racial slurs, proving again that he was a racist.

The 911 dispatcher who spoke to Mr. Zimmerman on the fatal night didn't tell him to stay in his car. Mr. Zimmerman said he was following a suspicious person, and the dispatcher told him, "We don't need you to do that." Chief prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda conceded in his closing argument that these words were ambiguous.

Mr. De la Rionda also acknowledged, based on witness and forensic evidence, that both men "were scraping and rolling and fighting out there." He pointed out that the wounds, blood evidence and DNA didn't match Mr. Zimmerman's story of being thoroughly restrained and pummeled throughout the fight. But the evidence didn't fit the portrait of Mr. Martin as a sweet-tempered child, either.

And the notion that Mr. Zimmerman hunted down Mr. Martin to accost him made no sense. Mr. Zimmerman knew the police were on the way. They arrived only a minute or so after the gunshot. The fight happened in a public area surrounded by townhouses at close range. It was hardly the place or time to start shooting.

That doesn't make Mr. 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 Mr. 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 baloney. The only thing the jury decided was that there was reasonable doubt as to whether Mr. Zimmerman had committed second-degree murder or manslaughter.

Mr. Zimmerman is guilty, morally if not legally, of precipitating the confrontation that led to Mr. Martin's death. He did many things wrong.

Mistake No. 1 was inferring that Mr. Martin was a burglar. In his 911 call, Mr. Zimmerman cited Mr. Martin's behavior. "It's raining, and he's just walking around" looking at houses, Mr. Zimmerman said. He warned the dispatcher, "He's got his hand in his waistband." He described Mr. Martin's race and clothing only after the dispatcher asked about them. Whatever its basis, the inference was false.

Mistake No. 2 was pursuing Mr. Martin on foot. Mr. Zimmerman had already done what the neighborhood watch rules advised: He had called the police. They would have arrived, questioned Mr. Martin and ascertained that he was innocent. Instead, Mr. Zimmerman, packing a concealed firearm, got out and started walking after Mr. Martin. Mr. Zimmerman's initial story, that he was trying to check the name of the street, was so laughable that his attorneys abandoned it. He was afraid Mr. Martin would get away. So he followed Mr. Martin, hoping to update the cops.

Mistake No. 3 was Mr. Zimmerman's utter failure to imagine how his behavior looked to Mr. Martin. You're a black kid walking home from a convenience store with Skittles and a fruit drink. Some dude in a car is watching and trailing you. God knows what he wants. You run away. He gets out of the car and follows you. What are you supposed to do?

In Mr. Zimmerman's initial interrogation, the police expressed surprise that he hadn't identified himself to Mr. Martin as a neighborhood watch volunteer. They suggested that Mr. Martin might have been alarmed when Mr. Zimmerman reached for an object that Mr. Zimmerman, but not Mr. Martin, knew was a phone.

Mr. Zimmerman seemed baffled. He was so convinced of Mr. Martin's criminal intent that he hadn't considered how Mr. Martin, if he were innocent, would perceive his stalker.

Mr. Martin, meanwhile, was profiling Mr. Zimmerman. On his phone, he told a friend he was being followed by a "creepy-ass cracker." The friend -- who later testified that this phrase meant pervert -- advised Mr. Martin, "You better run." She reported, as Mr. Zimmerman did, that Mr. Martin challenged Mr. Zimmerman, demanding to know why he was being hassled. If Mr. Zimmerman's phobic misreading of Mr. Martin was the first wrong turn that led to their fatal struggle, Mr. Martin's phobic misreading of Mr. Zimmerman may have been the second.

In court, evidence and scrutiny have exposed these difficult, complicated truths. But outside the court, ideologues are ignoring them. They're oversimplifying a tragedy that was caused by oversimplification. Mr. Martin has become Emmett Till. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is using the verdict to attack Florida's "stand your ground" law, which wasn't invoked in this case.

The grievance industrial complex is pushing the Department of Justice to prosecute Mr. Zimmerman for bias-motivated killing, based on evidence that didn't even support a conviction for unpremeditated killing. Mr. Zimmerman's lawyers have teamed up with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, inadvertently, to promote the false message that Mr. Zimmerman's acquittal means our society thinks everything he did was OK.

It wasn't OK. It was stupid and dangerous. It led to the unnecessary death of an innocent young man. It happened because two people -- their minds clouded by stereotypes that went well beyond race -- assumed the worst about one another and acted in haste.

If you want to prevent the next Trayvon Martin tragedy, learn from their mistakes. Don't paint the world in black and white. Don't declare the whole justice system racist, or blame every gun death on guns or confuse acquittal with vindication. And the next time you see somebody who looks like a punk or a pervert, hold your fire.

opinion_commentary

William Saletan covers science, technology and politics for Slate.


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