The Trayvon Martin case doesn't involve a white-Bronco car chase, an NFL legend and a pretty blonde -- just a black, unarmed teenage boy in a hoodie and a neighborhood-watch captain with a gun named George Zimmerman. But the second-degree-murder case against Zimmerman -- who says he killed Martin in a gated community in Sanford, Fla., last February out of self-defense -- has the potential to be just as meaningful as the O.J. Simpson trial when it comes to race and the justice system.
Charles Ogletree, director and founder of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at Harvard Law School, said the "distinctive qualities" of the case -- which centers around the issues of racial profiling, gun violence and self-defense laws -- make it particularly relevant. "I will even go so far as to say that this will be the trial of the century that will say a lot about the court system of the 21st century," he said.
Since Martin was shot to death on Feb. 26, 2012, advocates have rallied around his family and his cause -- with support ranging from hoodie campaigns to gestures of solidarity on the House floor. For weeks, there was buzz about the nature of race in America and how violence against blacks -- specifically young black males -- must stop.
But not everyone feels the same way. Polls suggest just how much race has played a factor. In a USA Today-Gallup poll, 51 percent of African-Americans felt that Zimmerman was guilty, while 20 percent of whites felt otherwise. It's a case that has exposed the deep racial chasm that still exists in America. Will things get uglier before they get better? Zimmerman's family and legal team have pulled out all the stops to try to paint Martin as a malicious thug. From records of the teen's text messages to pictures of Martin blowing smoke, the defense has tried to provide as much evidence as possible that Zimmerman shot Martin in self-defense.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Benjamin Crump -- the attorney for the Martin family -- said during a recent Miami prayer service that Zimmerman's defense has made "a desperate attempt to try to play on people's prejudices" by releasing cellphone pictures and texts from the teen. "It's bad enough they had to lose their child," he said. "It's tragic the Zimmerman defense had to assassinate his character," Crump said.
At the same prayer service, Trayvon's father, Tracy Martin, acknowledged that the family would "have to sit through a lot of negativity." It's likely that Zimmerman's team will continue to be aggressive during the trial, Ogletree said. "Trayvon is not here to speak for himself, so it makes the case incredibly difficult," he said. "But his parents hope that the evidence presented by the prosecution shows beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman needs to be punished for his actions."
Judith Browne Dianis -- co-director of the Advancement Project -- suggested that the defense might try to paint Zimmerman as a nonracist, open-minded person just to put to rest the idea that the fatal incident was racially motivated. "I don't know what the prosecution's case is, but I would image that the defense may say that some of Zimmerman's closest friends are black people," Dianis said, "and that they will have a parade of black witnesses for their client."
In his phone call to the police the night of the shooting, Zimmerman said that Martin "looked suspicious." Zimmerman also decided to approach the teen after the 911 operator told him not to. But there's no way to prove what he actually meant by "suspicious."
"In a case of racial profiling by the police, we would have data, statistics and other evidence to prove that race was a motive," Dianis said. "But this is a case against one person, and we may never know what he meant by that comment because he could actually never take the stand." If Dianis is right and Zimmerman never testifies, will all the hoodie marches and congressional support be in vain? Not if the community channels that same passion that was prominent during the formative stages of this case and applies it to a bigger movement, she said.
"Wherever people are across this country, they should be doing something like finding and rooting out racial profiling in their own hometown," Dianis said. "We have to take the outcome of this case and turn it into something productive for us. We can't turn it into anger -- we have to keep it moving and honor Trayvon."
Aja Johnson is an editorial fellow at The Root.