The angry public reaction to the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin had a solid basis in fact. The teen was found dead and unarmed. A call placed to police by the shooter, George Zimmerman, proves beyond any doubt that — at least in the early stages of the encounter — Zimmerman was the aggressor. Further, Zimmerman’s story — that after running away in apparent fear, Martin suddenly attacked when Zimmerman gave up on the pursuit — sounds implausible. There should be a trial to determine whether Zimmerman can be proven guilty of a crime, and at first it appeared there would not be.
But that has changed. Despite the police’s reluctance to arrest Zimmerman, a special prosecutor is looking at the incident and may bring charges. The race-obsessed Obama Justice Department is also on the case. Even assuming Zimmerman acted illegally, a fair trial does not guarantee justice for Martin — there may not be enough evidence to prove the shooter guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But to the extent it is possible and consistent with the rule of law, the justice system will address this case.
That is not enough for Martin’s most bloodthirsty defenders, who have taken matters into their own hands. These vigilantes do not have the support
of mainstream pro-Martin commentators, and, of course, their behavior does not weaken the legal case against Zimmerman. But they represent a disturbing and shockingly popular departure from the way in which crime ought to be addressed.
The shooting occurred more than a month ago, and soon thereafter, Zimmerman received death threats and moved out of his house, according to his father. But any case can capture the imaginations of a few crazies. It wasn’t until last week that the idea of privately hunting down Zimmerman went viral.
One of the major instigators was a 33-year-old Los Angeles man with more than 4,000 Twitter followers, Marcus Davonne Higgins. Starting last Wednesday, Higgins made numerous efforts to disseminate what he claimed was Zimmerman’s address, through tweets, posts to his Facebook wall, and a picket sign at a rally on Thursday. On Thursday, the New Black Panther Party called for the capture of Zimmerman, “dead or alive.”
Things only got worse from there. On Friday, film director Spike Lee — who boasts a quarter of a million Twitter followers — retweeted a message from Higgins with George Zimmerman’s supposed address. (It turns out that the house belongs to a couple in their 70s, who do not even live in a gated community, and now fear for their lives.) On Saturday, the New Black Panther Party updated its call for vigilante justice against Zimmerman, offering a $10,000 bounty. And on Monday, another Twitter user posted the incorrect address for Zimmerman, garnering 4,000 retweets.
Needless to say, this is unacceptable — and, in fact, much of it is illegal. The New Black Panther Party member who posted the $10,000 bounty has already been arrested, albeit on a weapons charge. And while the courts have often protected newspapers that publish the addresses of crime suspects and their families, some of the tweets of Zimmerman’s address contain explicit incitements to violence (“He gone learn today”). Simply put, the freedom of speech does not protect the right to suggest that people be attacked.
But aside from the legal ramifications, the threats against Zimmerman are a symptom of the entire debate’s having gone off the rails. Most problematic is that mainstream liberals, rather than encouraging a fair and public trial with all of the relevant information out in the open, are trying to shut down discussion of Martin’s past behavior as “blaming the victim” or “smearing.” Never mind that numerous facts have come to light — Martin was suspended for marijuana, he was once caught in school with women’s jewelry and a screwdriver, and a tweet to Martin from a cousin suggests he “swung on a bus driver” — which could have a bearing on whether Zimmerman’s story is plausible enough to constitute “reasonable doubt.”
Martin’s supporters say they want an arrest and a trial, and it looks like they will get that. A public trial, not private justice, is what the shooter and the victim deserve — and both sides must be allowed to make their case in full.
— Robert VerBruggen is an associate editor of National Review. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen.