The Media Zone

How the media make sense and nonsense of the world.

The Case Against George Zimmerman

Social and political outrage prevents a miscarriage of justice... for now.

Angela Corey
Given that the case is playing out under a microscope amid worldwide media attention, the nation's ears pricked up when it was announced that Florida Gov. Rick Scott appointed Special Prosecutor, Angela Corey was going to hold a press conference at 6PM EST. At that time she would formally file of 2nd-Degree Murder charges against George Zimmerman, the now-infamous neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida who said he shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in self-defense on February 26, 2012.

The homicide—now classified as a murder—became a national projective test, an inkblot or TAT of cultural-racial-political sensibilities and anxieties after the Sanford Police held but then released Zimmerman, apparently accepting at face value his "stand your ground" (justified use of deadly force) defense, one that is legal in Florida and in 17 other states.

Martin family
Public outrage erupted after Trayvon Martin's father, learning that the alleged killer of their son was released rather than held during a preliminary investigation into the exact circumstances of the killing, contacted an attorney and began talking to the press.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Much of the nation's social mood soon worsened when earwitnesses (witnesses who heard but did not see the events surrounding the homicide) contradicted Zimmerman's story and news media, like CNN, began doing on-air voice analyses of Zimmerman's phone call to the police, offering interpretations that suggested possible racial profiling and prejudice toward Blacks on his part.

Pre-trial publicity had begun. The fog of the war of words was afoot.

From that point on, the media, mainstream and social, became a national rumour mill and the blogosphere, yea eventually all of cyberspace, became a platform for radicalism, for taking sides, for issuing marching orders, all the while nourished by only a skeletal array of facts to buttress the emotional donnybrook now convulsing America.

Corey had taken over the case after the state attorney, Norm Wolfinger, stepped aside amid complaints over his handling of the case and after public outcry over the Sanford police department's apparent and possibly African-American stereotype-biased (mis) handling of case

At precisely 6 PM yesterday, Special Prosecutor Angela Corey strode to the microphone and, with her legal entourage serving as a backdrop, laid out the general details of the arrest and the charges against George Zimmerman. The decompression in the media and the public was audible and relieved, except for those now outraged.

Corey handled the announcement with political savvy and social awareness and sensitivity to the delicacy of the situation and polarization, racial, political, and otherwise that the case has engendered over the volatile preceding three weeks since the murder case exploded onto the the multi-platformed media scene.

She made sure to hit all the right notes and points of ongoing and potential controversy including justice for both the victim and legal/constitutional rights of the now-defendant George Zimmerman and the legal system's responsibility to continue to defend George Zimmerman’s right to "due process." 

She also discretely talked about her meeting and joint prayer with the Trayvon Martin's parents, but reiterated several times that the facts of the investigation of the shooting, which had been ongoing, often out of sight, led to the arrest of Zimmerman, not public or media pressure, people marching in the streets, or Rev. Al Sharpton vanguarding the media and African American outcry of clear injustice and possibly charges of institutional racism against the local criminal justice system.

Corey's press conference manner was professional, unflappable, almost professorial, clearly the demeanor of one accustomed to talking to those unfamiliar with legal terms and procedures in Florida, but open to understanding them, either for themselves or their readers. She inspired confidence, at least in pundit public pronouncements.

Prosecutor Corey did show a frisson of impatience, though, when a reporter asked her about details of the case which she had already said three times would not be forthcoming until the trial and that too much information about the case had already been openly discussed, adding more heat than light to the public's clear understanding of the case. It seemed as though she was veiling her criticism of both the now-departed lawyers representing Zimmerman and the politicizing and polarizing impact of media coverage.

Post-conference media and blogospheric reactions seem to suggest positive surprise over Corey's seeking murder-2 rather than manslaughter charges against Zimmerman and had the effect of mollifying the outrage generated by the case. Perhaps that was part of the strategy devised by Corey and her advisers.

In other (cynical) words, even if the "stand your ground" defense successfully eliminates a trial or is successfully invoked in trial by the jurors as a basis for Zimmerman's acquittal, at least the state and the justice system could not reasonably be accused of a racial double standard. It tried and the jury spoke otherwise, not unlike the first trial, for murder, of O.J. Simpson. 

On a related matter, Special Prosecutor Corey also expressed some doubts—how strong was unclear—about whether or not the case could be tried fairly and with an impartial jury in the local judicial district of Seminole County, Florida. This opened the possibility of one or both sides seeking a change of venue.

Trial venue changing is frequently a resort with cases having so much pretrial and inflammatory publicity and public rancor. Recent alleged accounts, for example, of the presence in Sanford of a reanimated Black Panthers allegedly putting a bounty out on Zimmerman and a "well-armed" white supremacists vigilante group out to "protect the white citizenry," are illustrative of the pretrial goings-on contaminating the well of potential public and jury pool impartiality, thereby forcing a change of locales in which to conduct a fair(er) trial.

Black Panther bounty
Interestingly, if full or partial trial coverage is allowed to be televised, it will once again put the lie to the charge that our culture suffers from ADD when watching talking heads which neither sing nor tell jokes.

It is certain that, as in the O.J. trials, there will be media circuses and public demonstrations during all phases of this trial. It is also a certainty that special prosecutor Angela Corey and her team will not make the sake mistakes that were made by the prosecution of O.J. Simpson. Nor, I suspect, will the presiding judge, if there indeed is a trial.

How ironic it is that the battling public polarities in this case are so different from those in the O.J case. Zimmerman, the German-sounding name of a mixed race and religion Latino male, is being tried for the murder of an African-American male. Two minorities. Yet, it has come to feel so black and white, hasn't it?

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., is Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

more...

Subscribe to The Media Zone

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.