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Jane Velez-Mitchell: Think about perceptions

  • Jane Velez-Mitchell takes a stand on the biggest topics of the day Monday-Friday at 7 p.m. ET on HLN
  • She discusses the role biases played in the George Zimmerman's case
Jane Velez-Mitchell: Think about perceptions

Monday night at 10 p.m ET on a special edition of HLN After Dark, Vinnie Politan is one-on-one with the Zimmerman prosecution team to try to find out what happened. HLN has been all over this case, and nothing is off-limits in this primetime interview.

Panicked screams and a shot in the dark.
Volunteer neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin… an unarmed teen. At first glance, this was an outrage, and the outrage was on multiple levels. Zimmerman followed Martin through a neighborhood. Martin’s only crime seemed to be "looking suspicious." What was suspicious? He was wearing a hoodie and walking through this gated community on a dark and rainy night.  
And then there was the lack of an arrest. Protests and marches took place in different cities across the country. A petition called “Prosecute the killer of our son, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin” garnered more than 2 million signatures. After a special investigation, Zimmerman was arrested and charged with second-degree murder.
And then came the claim of self-defense. Zimmerman said he shot Martin because he feared for his life. Martin wasn’t armed. Many people questioned how he could possibly claim self-defense.
Everything seemed clear. There were recordings of Zimmerman speaking to 911 operators. We can see how this fateful night began. But as we get closer to the actual time of the shooting, the details -- much like that night -- get murky.
That was the problem with the prosecution's case. There are only two people who know exactly what happened that night. One of them is dead and the other has a vested interest in how his version of events is perceived.
Much like the classic film Rashomon, everyone involved in the case seemed to see a completely different version of the same thing. It was dark and raining the night Zimmerman shot and killed Martin. We heard from eye-witnesses and ear-witnesses, but their accounts of what happened that night seemed to contradict each other. Who was screaming? Who was on top during the struggle? Who was punching whom? 
The prosecution claimed Zimmerman repeatedly lied. At one point, they listed more than 10 lies Zimmerman allegedly told. If, in the end, the jury believed Zimmerman's account of what happened or the jury decided that the State did not do enough to prove his guilt, is not important. Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder.
The outrage people may feel at this outcome is understandable. An unarmed 17-year-old was killed. Martin was walking home from a convenience store. He was carrying candy and a drink. From the public’s view, he posed no threat. Martin died way too young. And the chain of events that led to this stems from Zimmerman’s decision to follow Martin after being instructed not to by the non-emergency 911 operator. And while the racial profiling argument was not allowed in this trial, the idea of perception, of judging people based on appearance, was clearly an undercurrent in court and a focus of the national conversation surrounding this trial.
Now is a good time to think about how we judge each other. Perceptions and judgments are made in a snap, often based solely on appearance -- based on what a person is wearing, how they look, their skin color. But it is also important to realize that this horrible tragedy, this untimely death, is a result of one person’s perception. The gated community in Florida where this happened was a multicultural, multiethnic community. A look at the neighbors who took the stand will tell you that. It looked like people from every race and background were living together in this community. This was one aberration.
We will never know exactly what happened that night. We will never know how the fight started or who threw the first punch. We may not agree on whether this truly was self-defense. But we can agree that this could have easily been avoided. This tragic death of a 17-year-old did not have to happen. Our focus now should not be on who was right and wrong. We have to respect the jury’s decision. Our focus now should be going forward. It should be on how we see and judge each other based on perception and prejudice.
There is no better reminder of the dangers of snap judgments than the death of Trayvon Martin. A snap decision led to a fight which led to a lethal gunshot.
And all along, a simple conversation could have solved everything.  

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