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Editorial: After George Zimmerman verdict, U.S. must heal racial distrust

People hold hands in a circle at a

People hold hands in a circle at a rally honoring Trayvon Martin at Union Square in Manhattan. (July 14, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

The jury delivering the verdict on George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin could not give our nation the justice it seeks. That's true in the wake of Zimmerman being found not guilty -- and would have been true had he been convicted.

The jury of six women, five white and one Hispanic, was asked to evaluate the last few moments of a confrontation between the multiracial Zimmerman, then 28, and the African-American Martin, 17. The battle that played out in the months afterward and continues today is much larger: why a young black man in a hoodie could be seen as "a real suspicious guy," as Zimmerman described him to a dispatcher in the 911 call minutes before the shooting.

None of the nation's history of prejudice or even the risks inherent in a "stand your ground" law were effectively addressed in the courtroom in Sanford, Fla. All of it must now be confronted elsewhere, everywhere. While the verdict of "not guilty" that came Saturday night was unsurprising based on the scant evidence, a weak prosecution and a strong defense that apparently convinced the jury there was reasonable doubt, a young man lies dead -- wrongly, outrageously.

On Feb. 26, 2012, Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, killed Martin, who was walking to a home where he was staying in Zimmerman's gated community. The police dispatcher told Zimmerman not to follow the young man, but Zimmerman, a police officer wannabe, would not stand down. A struggle ensued in which Zimmerman, who was bloodied, shot Martin in the heart. This is known.

Most of the rest is a matter of conflicting testimony and supposition.

Two weeks later, no arrest had been made and anger was building. The Sanford police chief said he had no proof Zimmerman did not act in self-defense. The Justice Department, the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office joined the investigation. Outrage mounted among those who said Martin was murdered and those who said Zimmerman was being persecuted. Finally, six weeks after the incident, a special prosecutor charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder, and the trial judge later allowed the jury to consider a lesser manslaughter count.

The verdict of "not guilty," however, does not mean innocent.

Martin's death highlighted a still-aching racial gap in our society. For many, Zimmerman's profiling of Martin echoed everyday life instances of being judged by your skin color. The verdict reverberated against a sad history in this nation of little justice from the institutions in our society entrusted to deliver it.

President Barack Obama Sunday repeated the call by Martin's parents for calm reflection, adding, "We should ask ourselves if we're doing all we can to widen the circles of compassion and understanding in our communities."

If Zimmerman hadn't profiled Martin as dangerous, Martin likely would be alive. If Zimmerman had listened to the police and stopped following the young man carrying only an ice tea and a bag of Skittles, Martin likely would be alive. If Zimmerman hadn't been armed, Martin likely would be alive.

If race relations and fear and hatred and anger were not what they are in this country, Martin likely would be alive.

No jury, asked to consider a moment in time, can solve that. Our nation can, and must.