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Another Skittles-related death

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

A young man was shot dead by a neighborhood watch captain a month ago in Sanford, Florida, a town I’ve only driven through during a vacation or two.

The particular facts of the case, at least as they’ve been reported, are that the victim, 17-year old Trayvon Martin, committed no crime and was totally unarmed — unless a package of Skittles and an iced tea are considered dangerous weapons. Still, the shooter, 28-year old George Zimmerman, has not been arrested or charged with homicide.

The killing and the lack of an arrest — or even any sign, until recent days, of a serious investigation into the deadly incident — have understandably elicited public outrage and protest.

That anger and offense seems as universal as anything can be. President Barack Obama as well as Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have all expressed it.

GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney called the shooting a “tragedy” and offered, “There needs to be a thorough investigation that reassures the public that justice is carried out with impartiality and integrity.”

Newt Gingrich also called it a “tragedy” and said, “we’re going to relentlessly seek justice.” Rick Santorum argued it was “horrible” that local police didn’t “immediately go after and prosecute this case.”

The president went much further, stating that, “All of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how does something like this happen.”

Yet, the trigger wasn’t pulled by “all of us.” It was pulled by George Zimmerman.

On Fox News, Geraldo Rivera shifted blame elsewhere: onto hoodies. “I am urging the parents of black and Latino youngsters, particularly, not to let their children go out wearing hoodies,” he said. “I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as much as George Zimmerman was.”

Beware the dreaded hoodie makers and those heartless retailers!

Throughout the news coverage and political punditry the issue of race is consistently raised. Some contend that Zimmerman is a racist. On the tape of his calls with a 911-dispatcher, some say they hear Zimmerman use a racial epithet. I’ve listened to the recording a dozen times and just can’t hear anything.

Zimmerman’s father adamantly denies his son had any racial animus, since “George is a Spanish-speaking minority with many black family members and friends. He would be the last to discriminate for any reason whatsoever.”

In his younger days, Zimmerman had been the victim of a criminal assault, which might have influenced him to be more fearful of being victimized, quicker to pull a trigger. There is no indication of a racial component to that earlier incident.

On the more crucial issue, self-defense, it appears that it was Zimmerman who was following Martin, not the other way around. This seems to obliterate a defense under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows the use of deadly force when under threat.

As for any tendency toward violence, in 2005 an ex-fiancée won a protective injunction against Zimmerman citing domestic violence. The implication of this is muddied up by the fact that Zimmerman filed and won his own injunction against her, too.

George Zimmerman attended a four-month law-enforcement program put on by the local sheriff’s office in 2008 and claimed at that time that he hoped to become a policeman one day. He has also worked with the Retreat at Twin Lakes neighborhood watch for eight years.

The bottom-line? We know too little about Mr. Zimmerman’s state of mind before or during this tragic clash. But whether his shooting of Trayvon Martin was spurred by race or an itchy trigger finger or a hero complex or something we know absolutely nothing about, or was actually somehow in self defense, is beside the point.

The point is that our justice system ought to get to the bottom of it.

We innocent bystanders are no more responsible for this deadly tragedy than are hoodies. But a miscarriage of justice by those who work for us — our government, our police — is our responsibility. Even though African Americans have experienced a lack of justice for far too long, the broader lesson here is for all of us to stand up in whatever way we can to demand and secure justice for each and every individual.

Sabrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mother, put it all in proper perspective, when she said, “This is not about a black and white thing; this is about a right and wrong thing.”

Doing the right thing isn’t always easy, and the complexities of this case may have baffled the police in the first instance, discouraging action. Or habitual racism may have been a factor in officialdom’s initial inaction, even if it played a scant role in the shooting itself.

Whatever proves to be the case, public reaction and a free press seem to be doing their job, spurring review, investigation and, ultimately, some justice.

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