Gene Lyons

Justice for Trayvon Martin

Everybody wants to see justice done in the Trayvon Martin case, and almost everybody acts as if they already know what that is. Never mind the Rev. Al Sharpton, activist and crusading journalist all in one. Nor his MSNBC colleague Lawrence O'Donnell, who recently announced he'd decided to forgo wearing a hoodie on TV to look more like a prosecutor.

Here's GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum on "Face the Nation," assessing shooter George Zimmerman's mental health. "Someone has a very sick mind who would pursue someone like this," Santorum said. "This is clearly a heinous act. You know, there are a lot of people who have a lot of distorted views of reality ... And my heart goes out to the parents, too. I can't imagine what they're suffering, losing their son in such a horrific way. All I would say is that, whatever the motive is, it was a malicious one."

As an attorney, you'd think Santorum would know better than to bring a legally charged term like malice into it. Not to mention implied psychosis. Santorum subsequently reverted to form, blaming President Obama -- one of a few public figures who've spoken with appropriate restraint -- for bringing race into the equation. This because Obama, extending condolences to the family, acknowledged that, "if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."

Indeed, he would. Images of Trayvon's handsome, boyish face have played no small part in the public response. Obama also took care, in his capacity as chief executive, not to pre-judge the case. He called it "absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this and that everybody pulls together -- federal, state and local -- to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened."

In short, the president promised an investigation, not a result. Would that his circumspection had been followed by more of those who have justifiably turned Trayvon's death into a national drama, but who could end up provoking even graver and more socially disruptive tragedies if they're not more careful.

I say this as one who agrees that had George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin's roles been reversed, the black kid would almost surely have been arrested. Maybe not convicted, but taken into custody? Definitely. I also think that "concealed carry" handgun permits should be damn near impossible to get, and that Florida's NRA-influenced "stand-your-ground" law, and others like it, are certain to have disastrous results. They must be repealed.

I wouldn't trust myself with a pistol in my pocket, much less you. Untrained individuals like Zimmerman have no business packing heat, nor confronting strangers they deem suspicious. Trouble didn't come to George Zimmerman; he went looking for it. At minimum, he acted like a damn fool.

However, I've also had the experience of writing "Widow's Web," a book about a media-amplified murder case that took place in my home state of Arkansas. What I learned was that when reporters and pundits set themselves up as amateur homicide detectives -- not to mention as prosecutor, judge and jury -- the odds against justice being served grow longer.

I can still remember where I was sitting and what the weather was like when I realized that a ballyhooed front page account of a murder trial in Little Rock's dominant morning newspaper bore almost no relationship to the actual testimony and crime scene photos. It was that shocking to me. All the errors ran in one direction, casting suspicion on an innocent man for murdering his wife. He was eventually exonerated, but only after a harrowing ordeal.

Meanwhile, a veritable orgy of gossip, speculation and self-righteous moralizing swept the state. "You could ask the ladies under every hair dryer in every beauty shop in Arkansas if (the innocent husband) was involved, and they'd say yes," one beleaguered police official told me. "They didn't have to know the first thing about the case. They just knew."

It's no exaggeration to say that millions are already there with regard to Trayvon Martin. So affecting were the pictures and descriptions of his death, and so moving the grief and immense dignity of his parents, that it's become easy to cast Zimmerman as a racist villain out of central casting, and to leap to conclusions not in evidence.

Specifically, what exactly took place between Zimmerman and Martin during their fatal encounter? Who attacked whom? We really don't know, and media accounts, as often happens, haven't helped. On MSNBC's "The Last Word" the other night, Lawrence O'Donnell's guests tried to discuss what Martin's girlfriend may have seen.

The girl was halfway across Florida, talking to him by cellphone.

There have been numerous similar episodes. Much of what you think you know may be false. Media personalities don't set out to misinform; mainly, they become True Believers.

It's possible George Zimmerman's culpability will never be proved to everybody's satisfaction. But the kind of painstaking professional investigation President Obama has called for is the only way to try.

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