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A jury on Saturday found the neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman not guilty of all the charges he faced related to the 2012 death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. While the verdict may have settled the matter in court, it reignited conversations throughout the country — and in our region — about race, fairness and our justice system.
- Glenn Ivey Former State’s Attorney in Prince George’s County, Maryland; former Assistant U.S. Attorney in Washington, DC; Attorney at Leftwich and Ludaway
- Elijah Cummings U.S. Representative, D-Md. (7th District)
MR. MARC FISHERFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo. Later in the broadcast, driving's great decline. We'll explore why the cult of the car is fading in the Washington region and across the country. But first, a verdict that has sparked anger and triggered conversations about race, justice and the connection between law and morality.
MR. MARC FISHERA Florida jury on Saturday acquitted neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman of all charges he faced related to the death of teenager Trayvon Martin. The case ignited debates far beyond Florida about racial profiling, civil rights, guns and self-defense. And while Saturday's verdict may have settled the matter in court, Zimmerman's exoneration has rejuvenated arguments about the courts and popular expectations that may have little to do with how the law really works.
MR. MARC FISHERJoining me by phone to discuss this is Elijah Cummings, member of the United States House of Representatives. He's a Democrat representing Maryland's 7th District, which includes parts of Baltimore City and Howard County. Congressman Cummings, thanks for joining us.
STATE REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGSIt's good to be with you.
FISHERWell, you said over the weekend that this verdict sent a message to young black men throughout the country that the fight for civil rights is far from over. Meanwhile, the Justice Department said this weekend that the criminal section of its civil rights division has an open investigation into this matter. What are you looking for from the Justice Department with this case, and what do you think are the appropriate next steps?
CUMMINGSWell, first of all, as a lawyer, I'm hoping that the Justice Department will just look very, very carefully and look at their jurisdiction. There's only -- can be one category that stands out here, and that is whether or not this was possibly a hate crime. But, yeah, I'll leave it up to the Justice Department to simply review the case to make sure that Trayvon Martin's civil rights were not violated here.
CUMMINGSAnd they are -- certainly the Justice Department -- I applaud the Justice Department for taking the position that they will continue an investigation that they had started much earlier, but then had suspended it to allow the state case to go forward. And so they are basically resuming something they were already doing, and I just want them to take a close look at it and see if there has been any kind of violation of Trayvon Martin's rights.
CUMMINGSKeep in mind, this jury verdict -- and as one who has tried cases many times, I respect the decisions of juries. That is our system. But that does not mean that the verdict was not very disappointing.
FISHERWell, part of the reason we saw so many people pouring into the streets here in Washington and around the country over the weekend was the sense that somehow the justice system and this jury didn't see what many Americans had seen watching this case develop over these months. But to lawyers, almost no matter what their political leanings, it was clear from the start that the evidence just didn't exist to convict Zimmerman.
FISHERWhy do you think there's such a gulf that persists between what many Americans believe the court should be able to do and what the criminal system really requires in the way of evidence beyond a reasonable doubt?
CUMMINGSYeah. Well, I can understand the public's view, and I can also understand the lawyers' view as a lawyer. I think the state did have a pretty difficult case. Keep in mind that it took them a while just to charge George Zimmerman. Number two, keep in mind that they have the Stand Your Ground law, which is a very, very interesting law, which is -- 20 states have it. It basically says that if you feel like you are in harm by another, or they may -- not to basically kill you, but may -- if they may harm you, you have the right to use deadly force.
CUMMINGSAnd it says that even if the person is retreating, and even if you have an opportunity to retreat, you still can use deadly force. I think that that is a bit much, I mean particularly when you've got a situation where you got one person with a gun and another person with no weapon at all. And so don't get me wrong. I just think that law needs to be looked at in those states because I think what it does is it gives folks like George Zimmerman -- and I think basically what you had with Zimmerman was somebody who wanted to act like a policeman.
CUMMINGSHe had been told to not pursue this young man, and he did it anyway, and I think that that's where -- that's part of the reason why a lot of people are upset. They feel as if Trayvon Martin merely was going to get a soda and some candy and in a neighborhood where he had an absolute right to be. But then because of the way he looked, because he was African-American, that he was then placed in a position to be killed.
FISHERWe're talking to Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland's 7th District about the George Zimmerman verdict. We'll be joined in a few minutes by Glenn Ivey, the former state's attorney for Prince George's County. You can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850 or email us at kojo -- K-O-J-O -- @wamu.org. And, congressman, you have a case in your own family a few years ago where your nephew was shot and killed in Norfolk, Va.
FISHERYou said after his funeral that part of what was most tragic about this case to you was that violent things happen to African-American men all across the country that don't get the same attention. What did you learn, after your nephew's death, about seeking justice, and how has that informed your response to the Trayvon Martin case?
CUMMINGSYou know, African-American men have a 17 times much greater chance of being shot to death than whites. This thing of gun violence is a very serious thing in the African-American community. The folks who killed my 21-year-old nephew, a junior at Old Dominion, two years -- Old Dominion University, two years ago still have not been caught. And, you know, what I learned from that is that I guess I have -- I've had so many people come up to me and tell me, you know, my son was killed, or my son was murdered in various circumstances that they tell me.
CUMMINGSI'll tell you, it seemed like I did -- somebody saying that to me almost every week. And I don't think I've realized even as a congressman representing an urban district, a person who's looked on to many funerals of young African-American men who'd never been armed and killed, I'll tell you, I didn't -- I don't think I've realized the full impact of gun violence in our country with regard to African-American men. And it's very real, and a lot of times it does not get the kind of attention that other kinds of incidents get, and I think that's what I was trying to say.
FISHERYou watched, as we all did over this weekend, as people came out on to the streets in peaceful demonstrations. And yet in the days before that, there were all kinds of predictions or expectations that some of that street action might turn violent. What do you make of those expectations of outrage and even violence? Is that a case of media and politicians clinging to old stereotypes about how Americans might express their disappointment?
FISHERAnd do you think this peaceful response is a sign of maturity, or rather of people giving up, of some sort of cynicism that, you know, that the system is rigged and it doesn't matter?
CUMMINGSI don't think that people have given up at all. I think people have come to realize that there are other ways to turn their pain into passion to carry out their purpose. And they realize that acting out -- you know, acting in any kind of violent way as a result of a violent act against Trayvon Martin really does not help the cause. My mother, a former sharecropper, used to always say, you can have motion, commotion, emotion and no results.
CUMMINGSAnd I think that there are two things that happened here that helped tremendously. The Martin family asked that there be no types of violent demonstration. That was number one. But I also think that there were a lot of -- when the Justice Department made its decision to at least look into this and see if there were any civil rights violations, I think people felt that there would be at least a review of what has happened, and I think that has helped too.
CUMMINGSAnd, of course, there were national leaders who were saying that they were hoping that the Justice Department would do what they've already agreed to do now. So I think all of those things. When the people are just saying, you know what, yes, the jury has spoken, we don't agree with the jury verdict, but we wanna make sure that we do constructive things and hopefully so that this thing -- these types of things might not happen again.
CUMMINGSAnd I think one of those constructive things is going to be out there. It was gonna be people going out there and voting and trying to bring in legislators and these various state legislators who will look at these Stand Your Ground laws in 20 different states and try to figure out how they might adjust them.
FISHERGreat. Well, thank you very much, Congressman Elijah Cummings, for joining us. He's a Democrat who represents Maryland's 7th District. And we're gonna continue with that very topic of the Stand Your Ground law as we're joined now by Glenn Ivey, the former state's attorney for Prince George's County in Maryland. He's currently a partner at the law firm Leftwich & Ludaway.
FISHERAnd, Glenn Ivey, as a prosecutor in Prince George's, and knowing what you do about this case and the original decision by the Florida prosecutors not to file charges, was that the right move legally? And was there -- was the decision to bring in a special prosecutor one of bending to popular pressure that kind of set up this moment of disappointment and outrage?
MR. GLENN IVEYWell, I think there were a lot of missteps at the beginning. Certainly, the -- there were things about the investigation, whether Zimmerman should have been arrested initially or not. You know, my personal view at the time was that I believe at least one of the detectives thought he should have been arrested at the beginning because he didn't believe what he was saying and thought that they had a case that they should pursue, and I thought that was right.
MR. GLENN IVEYI've got to say, too -- I mean, I thought the pursue and second-degree murder was gonna be a tall order. That's a really high standard to meet under the circumstances. But I was thinking they could get a conviction out of manslaughter, you know, given these facts. You know, you hear people on both sides. There are some folks who will say, you know, there's no way they could have made the case, and, you know, it was a travesty to bring it. You know, that's not my view. I thought that it was appropriate to bring a manslaughter charge and was disappointed, frankly, with the jury's verdict.
FISHERAnd yet when you -- in your experience in Prince George's County, you often were under tremendous popular pressure to bring charges, particularly in the case of police shootings, and there were occasions where you said, you know, the evidence simply didn't exist, even though the public was clearly outraged and, you know, emotionally deeply involved with those cases. Is it difficult as a prosecutor to deal with this gulf or this gap between what the public wants and what the law requires?
IVEYYeah, it can be. I think there are some things that you can do to try and diffuse that, that maybe didn't happen initially in Florida, that sort of exacerbated that scenario. You know, what I tried to do in these sorts of instances was to be pretty transparent. You know, you can't put out so much information you derail the investigation. But I try to let people know, generally speaking, what we were doing and how we are going about doing it.
IVEYAnd to the extent I could, I would give them timelines as to, you know, when I was gonna get back with a decision. But, you know, this was a very explosive situation. I think the closest I had would've been the Ronnie White case, which was the guy who allegedly killed a police officer and then turned up dead in his jail cell two days later. That was a big one for us. But, you know, again, I try to be clear with the public, and they gave me the space to call it like saw it.
FISHERLet's take a call from Gerald in Washington. Gerald, you're on the air.
GERALDSir, how are you today?
FISHERVery good. You're talking with Glenn Ivey from the -- former state's attorney for Prince George's County.
GERALDAll right. Now, let me see. Say, for instance, in my jurisdiction, we had the Stand Your Ground law, right?
GERALDNow, I've worked law enforcement for close to 30 years now. I go out and start something today or tomorrow. And then all of a sudden, I wanna use the Stand Your Ground law to defend myself. How does that sound? Does it sound logical?
IVEYYeah, I agree with your point. I mean, I think one of the challenges with respect to the Stand Your Ground laws -- and they vary from state to state but, you know, with that scenario, you know, if you initiate something, and that's what happened with Zimmerman here, you know, he created the situation, should you then be able to step behind that defense after something escalates?
IVEYThe other issue, too, was law enforcement around the country had concerns about Stand Your Ground, especially if you're, for example, like an undercover officer, you know, you're confronting someone, are you sort of conveying the message to people that they have a right to sort of resist what the officers are doing? I know the legislators did pass that say that you don't. But I think it's a legitimate concern and one of the many with the Stand Your Ground laws.
FISHERAnd, Glenn Ivey, some people have said that in the end, this case was about Florida's legal system as much as it was about anything else. Would this case have been substantively different if it had happened in Maryland?
IVEYI mean, I don't know that it would've been. I mean, you know, Stand Your Ground was not a defense that Zimmerman asserted. So to that extent, you know, that's off the table, and it ended up being just a self-defense case. And, really, this kind of revolved around the human element of jurors and how they look at the law and the evidence and interpret that. And, I guess, the litmus test that you could consider would be, you know, if you switched this around.
IVEYSo instead of Zimmerman being the guy that fired the shot, he was the guy that had been shot by Trayvon Martin. Do you think this jury would've come back in the same way? Or, you know, individually, do you think that you would view the case the same way? And for me, it's, you know, I think it's highly unlikely that it would've been treated in the same way that this jury treated it.
FISHERGlenn Ivey is the former state's attorney for Prince George's County. He's now a partner at the law firm of Leftwich & Ludaway. Thanks very much for joining us. When we come back after a short break, a change of topic. It says we talk about the sudden and rather dramatic decline in the number of Americans who drive cars, a huge cultural shift coming up right after this.
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