Identity, race and the courts: Martin v. Natan-Zada

Is it valid to claim the Trayvon Martin and Eden Natan-Zada cases were influenced by racial bias, even subconsciously?

Justice for Trayvon Martin rally 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)
Justice for Trayvon Martin rally 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)
In July, two court verdicts – one in the US and one in Israel – sparked widespread protest and rage by minority groups with allegations of racist bias.
The cases, the Trayvon Martin case in the US and the Eden Natan-Zada case in Israel, again bring up the controversial question: How do our identity and personal prejudices impact how we view court decisions? In each case, minority groups claimed that the courts had employed a double standard based on racial identity of the parties involved in the case.
Are their claims themselves too biased by racial identity to appreciate the legal nuances of the cases, or are their claims legitimate and more sober acknowledgements of the reality we live in? This week, the Haifa District Court acquitted seven mostly Israeli Arab residents of Shfaram on charges of attempted murder, while finding them guilty of attempted manslaughter and other offenses in the killing of Natan-Zada. The murdered man was a Jewish terrorist who murdered four mostly Israeli Arabs and wounded 17 others on a bus on August 4, 2005, after some evidence that he was in police custody.
Martin, an unarmed black teenager, was fatally shot on February 26, 2012, by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, igniting a raucous debate in the US on racial profiling and civil rights.
Zimmerman was found not guilty by a Florida jury of second- degree murder and manslaughter a few weeks ago.
Besides fact-specific differences, there are glaring differences between the two cases: the US context has a slavery-discrimination background, whereas the Israeli context has a backdrop of an ongoing war. Martin (the “minority”) was the court case victim, whereas the Israeli Arabs were the defendants; Natan-Zada was clearly a terrorist who committed multiple murders, while Zimmerman was at worst an aggressive racist who killed one person in convoluted circumstances.
Despite these large differences, both Zimmerman and the Israeli Arab defendants made controversial claims of self-defense and were entitled to acquittal, absent proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
How the jury/court interpreted self-defense and beyond a reasonable doubt are at the center of the questions of whether the judgments are biased, and whether viewing courts through the lens of racial bias can have any legitimacy.
The Israeli Arab defendants of the “minority” culture in Israel got off on attempted murder, but were convicted of attempted manslaughter – which could very well lead to jail time, even if significantly less than attempted murder carries.
Zimmerman, the “white” (though also half-Peruvian) defendant from the “majority” culture in the US, got off completely.
The Israeli Arab community has held up their convictions for attempted manslaughter as proof of anti-Arab racism.
In this narrative, attacking, and if necessary, killing Natan-Zada, who killed many innocent people and tried to kill others like the convicted Israeli Arabs, was legitimate to ensure survival.
Next, the Israeli Arabs noted that in a similarly famous case, the Bus 300 scandal of 1984, in which a combination of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), IDF forces and various private civilians beat two Palestinian terrorists to death after they had already been neutralized and placed in custody, none of the terrorists’ killers were convicted and some were never even prosecuted.
The critics add that the court unjustifiably limited its acceptance of the self-defense arguments because of bias against Arabs as killers who are ready to kill in cold-blood, even absent self-defense and extreme provocation.
So where self-defense and beyond a reasonable doubt were open to interpretation, the result went against the Israeli Arab minority.
They say that had the 2005 incident involved Jews killing an Arab terrorist after he was neutralized and in custody, they would have gotten off, as in the Bus 300 affair, based on an interpretation fully accepting some combination of the self-defense, provocation claims and the defense of lack of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, while deemphasizing evidence that the terrorist was already in custody.
The African-American community has held up the Zimmerman jury verdict and the acknowledged shoddy police investigation, which appears to have undermined the prosecution’s case to some degree, as an example of racist assumptions and racial profiling going off the deep end.
In this narrative, Martin was an innocent teenager who was uneventfully walking home from a convenience store with Skittles candy in his pocket, and was stalked by Zimmerman due to racial profiling and eventually killed during an altercation that Zimmerman unnecessarily initiated.
There are different views about the physical confrontation between the two. But critics of the acquittal say that since Zimmerman: was advised by the police not to follow Martin; uttered epithets against Martin to the police adviser that suggest racism; was not a police officer and Martin could have mistaken him as a vigilante attacker; and might have been able to retreat from confrontation, his racism led to his killing Martin.
Next, critics say that the Florida jury’s recognition of Zimmerman’s self-defense narrative despite the above contradictory facts, shows that they gave him a beyond reasonable benefit of the doubt in affirming his perverted view of self-defense in a situation which his aggressive racism created.
They add that had a black person like Martin been the neighborhood watch shooter and had Zimmerman been an innocent white teenager who was killed, the jury would not have extended a similar extreme benefit of the doubt, and Martin would be going to jail.
Do critics in both cases miss the point because they are too emotionally scarred from their experiences to view the courts objectively? This is what supporters of the verdicts say.
In the Martin case, they note that guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and that because of innumerable details – Zimmerman’s selfdefense claim, backed up by medical records of him being injured; disputes as to whether a recorded scream came from Zimmerman or from Martin; exposure of some of Martin’s darker, less innocent traits; and showing that one of the main witnesses against Zimmerman lied about side issues – the case was not sufficiently proven.
They slam the critics as contaminating the court system with their anti-racial-profiling agendas, and ignoring the limits of the law.
In the Natan-Zada case, they note that despite the reasonable doubt standard, the Israeli Arabs’ self-defense claim had to eventually fail based on photographic evidence that Natan-Zada was not killed until after he was neutralized and in custody, with several minutes passing in between.
They slam the critics as trying to bring racial politics into a courtroom that is color blind.
But in a landmark speech, US President Barack Obama noted that it is not realistic to expect African-Americans, when viewing court decisions, to forget about white police officers stalking them simply for visiting convenience stores, and about white persons in general rushing to lock their car doors when seeing them walk by – both of which Obama said had happened to him.
There certainly was evidence to create doubt as to whether Zimmerman acted in selfdefense – but can the jury really say that if Martin had been white, they would have equally entertained a doubt as to whether a recorded scream from the incident was coming from the soon-to-be-dead white teenager who had bought Skittles, or the armed, older, black watchman who had come out of his patrol car? Many white Americans would admit that it would be easier to believe that a white teenager had screamed, and was entirely the victim, than a black one.
The Haifa court dismissed arguments about the Bus 300 scandal, stating that the Jewish killers there were not acquitted.
Rather, the court said they had been pardoned without trial, presumably implying their guilt, and showing that but for the extra-political considerations – due to the fact that some of the killers were Shin Bet agents – they would have been convicted as had the Israeli Arabs.
But critics responded afterward, noting: What difference does it make to us whether the Jewish killers in the Bus 300 affair got off via a court or were pardoned? The point is they got off because they were Jews, they said, pointing out that most of those in the security services are Jews, while the Natan-Zada’s killers were convicted with no pardon because they were Arabs.
Put differently, how can the court claim that the system is fair and impartial, if the rules outside the courtroom which can impact who goes to jail are not fair? There may be no simple answer to these questions.
It is difficult to argue this, because even the most impartial juries and judges may have subconscious bias, and the system may be too broken to be used at all.
But to say that the result is fair because the set rules were applied, and to demonize those who allege racial bias, when there still seem to be examples of majority-culture offenders getting off when minority-culture offenders go to jail, may be to disingenuously ignore a part of our imperfect reality.
Some commentators have said that we may just be stuck with some bias even in our courts. As long as rulings are respected, recognizing that bias – even when the court rules were followed – may be part of keeping a watchful eye over ourselves.