Indicting George Zimmerman: The impact of public protests

When Florida state attorney Angela Corey announced that she would charge George Zimmerman with second degree homicide for shooting and killing Trayvon Martin, she emphasized that her decision was not influenced by politics or protests.  Instead, she said the facts of the case should drive the response of the criminal justice system.

“Let me emphasize,” the prosecutor said, “that we do not prosecute by public pressure or by petition.”

This ideal is certainly the way the justice system should work.  State Attorney Corey should have reviewed the facts of the case, including interviews with witnesses and forensic evidence, looked at the law, and made legal decisions about whether (and how) to charge George Zimmerman.

Should we believe this?  Did the protests matter at all?  Was it necessary to broadcast Trayvon Martin’s picture across the United States and gather over two million signatures on a petition?  Did the hoodie demonstrations in the streets and in legislatures affect the decision to prosecute George Zimmerman, weeks after he shot Trayvon Martin, and weeks after local police had detained–and released–Zimmerman?

It sure looks like it.

Angela Corey works for the state of Florida in Jacksonville, and normally wouldn’t be directly concerned with the prosecution of a case in Sanford (more than 2 hours South).  The protests and petitions interrupted the apparent efforts by local authorities to excuse or ignore this killing.  Protests across the country led Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee to step down (temporarily) and the local prosecutor ostensibly investigating the killing (Norman Wolfinger) to step aside.  National attention pushed Governor Rick Scott to appoint Corey as a special prosecutor. 

The campaign for some legal response to the killing of a young unarmed man took off because local authorities appeared to have failed in discharging their duties–rather conspicuously.  The protests invoked higher authorities to intervene.  They did so, responding to a local crime in an unusual fashion.

I believe that Angela Corey didn’t consider the protests when she made a professional judgment as a prosecutor.  Without the protests, however, it’s extremely unlikely she would have had the opportunity to make this call at all.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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2 Responses to Indicting George Zimmerman: The impact of public protests

  1. Pingback: Petitions, virtual and otherwise | Politics Outdoors

  2. Pingback: Occupy in Steubenville, Ohio | Politics Outdoors

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