There are many examples of racism, institutional and overt, in America’s criminal justice system. But rarely do such instances dominate public discourse the way the George Zimmerman verdict has.
On Saturday night after 10 p.m., if you walked down the street a few blocks, or past a bodega, or into a barbershop, or stood in line at the halal cart, or just logged into Twitter or Facebook, you almost certainly heard the outrage.
“Plaxico Burress got two years for shooting himself–himself!–in the leg,” a man on Flatbush and Parkside said to a friend. “Mike Vick got two years for killin’ some dogs. Dogs! And this guy kills a kid and gets off with nothin’?!”
“Pretty much what they’re saying is,” the friend replied, “I can pick a fight with you, get my ass kicked, then pull out my piece and smoke you and say I was just defending myself!”
From the sidewalks to the smartphones, folks rattled off recent cases that illustrate the racial imbalance in our system of crime and punishment. For instance, there was the black woman from Florida who got a 20-year prison sentence in May for firing a warning shot at her physically abusive husband.
The most notable comparison, however–the one that appears on the verge of going viral– is the case of John H. White, a black man who shot and killed a half-white/half-Puerto Rican teenager on a quiet Long Island street seven years ago.
White was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to four years in prison. The verdict was controversial. Unlike in Zimmerman’s trial, there was no avoiding the role of race in White’s.
Around 11 p.m. on August 9, 2006, Daniel Cicciaro and a group of his friends left a party and marched to White’s house in Miller Place, which the New York Times described as “a predominantly white hamlet on Long Island.” Daniel, then 17, had been classmates with White’s son Aaron, then 19. And Daniel, the Times reported, “apparently believed a false rumor that Aaron was responsible for a message on an Internet chat room that threatened the rape of a girl they all knew.”
As the group stood outside White’s house, Daniel challenged Aaron to a fight. He made threats. He hurled racial epithets.
The Times‘s 2007 report detailed what happened next:
Mr. White testified that Aaron woke him from a deep sleep the night of the shooting, yelling that that “some kids are coming here to kill me.” Mr. White said he considered the angry teenagers a “lynch mob.”
He said their racist language recalled the hatred he saw as a child visiting the segregated Deep South and stories of his grandfather’s being chased out of Alabama in the 1920s by the Ku Klux Klan.
Mr. White testified that his grandfather taught him how to shoot and bequeathed him the pistol he used.
White testified that he did not mean to shoot. He went outside to confront the kids and waved the gun to scare them away. He claimed that he turned to go back into the house, but Daniel then lunged at him. And that’s when White pulled the trigger.
The racial overtones of the encounter played a central role in White’s defense. The Times reported:
A lawyer for Mr. White, Frederick K. Brewington, insisted in his summation that this was a “modern-day lynch mob” and that Mr. White considered it “history replaying itself.”
“Race has so much to do with this case, ladies and gentlemen, that it is painful,” Mr. Brewington said. He told the jury that to convict Mr. White would betray advances in civil rights.
Mr. Brewington said the verdict “indicates a mindset that says, ‘We’re O.K. with what happened.'” He said the jury failed to take into account that “John White and his family were scared to death.
The jury found White guilty in December 2007. After a failed appeal, he began his prison term in July 2010.
But the story does not end there. During his final week in office in December 2010, Governor David Paterson commuted White’s sentence, setting him free after five months behind bars.
“My decision today may be an affront to some and a joy to others,” Paterson said in a statement at the time, “but my objective is only to seek to ameliorate the profound suffering that occurred as a result of this tragic event.”