It’s hard to believe that the trial for George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case is only just beginning. After over a year of being at the forefront of the public’s attention, the trial has finally reached the point of jury selection, a sure-to-be-arduous process at best. Of course, the state of Florida is also in the spotlight again, holding one of its biggest and most high-profile court proceedings since the Casey Anthony trial. And while the official trial has just begun, the court of public opinion has long been in session. Countless conversations about racial profiling, gun rights, and potential police corruption have been sparked, bringing in strong opinions about topics outside of the concrete details of the case. Due to the charged nature of the issues relating to this case, jury selection will be particularly difficult. However, due to the charged nature of the issues relating to this case, media outlets are poised to strike ratings gold.
On one hand, it’s easy to forget that we might not even be at this point if it weren’t for mass mobilization by the general public, pressuring the state attorney to charge George Zimmerman and bring him to trial. On the other hand, such mobilization should not be conflated with the mainstream media’s largely exploitative coverage, lest we forget that it took a significant amount of time for the story to be picked up by major media outlets after first breaking on social media networks. So as the trial officially begins with such a highly demonstrated public interest, it is crucial that all of us watching distinguish the transparency of legal proceedings from the “ESPN-ing” of coverage, where lawyers pose as virtual sports commentators, evaluating each day’s matchups.
Here’s what we know: On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman as he was walking to his father’s fiancée’s home in Sanford, Florida on the way back from a local convenience store, holding a bottle of iced tea and a bag of Skittles. Prosecutors are attempting to convict George Zimmerman of second-degree murder, while the defense is arguing that Zimmerman acted in self-defense after being attacked.
Of course, attempted character assassination on both sides has played itself out in the court of public opinion already, in ways that have been ruled inadmissible in actual court: Zimmerman’s lawyers have released Trayvon’s school records and various photos and text messages to the media, in an attempt to paint a certain image of Martin to potential jurors, independent of the circumstances of the case. Some argue that the mere insinuation of racial profiling on Zimmerman’s part is character assassination in and of itself, highlighting how difficult and convoluted conversations about race and racism can be. As a recent Upworthy video showed, racial profiling can be incredibly pernicious and subtle, but demonstrating such in court is an entirely more difficult matter.
The Trayvon Martin case and subsequent George Zimmerman trial have triggered important (albeit tense) conversations about major societal issues, and are therefore hugely significant occurrences. But it needs to first and foremost be a demonstration of due process. As flawed as our justice system is, we can never let it devolve into a court of public opinion. Media exposure was invaluable to bringing about the case we are soon to witness. Now it is time for a jury of Zimmerman’s peers to evaluate the evidence presented, and vote accordingly. Let us hope that the media, in pursuit of ratings and viewers, does not become an obstruction to justice.