Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Rush to judgment in Trayvon Martin case

By William J. Bennett, CNN Contributor
updated 8:29 PM EDT, Fri March 30, 2012
We should be guided by the facts when seeking justice, says William Bennett.
We should be guided by the facts when seeking justice, says William Bennett.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • William Bennett: The death of Trayvon Martin is much more complex than first thought
  • Bennett: Some are not looking for justice, but are exploiting this terrible death
  • He says we don't know if Zimmerman is guilty or if racism was a motivating factor
  • Bennett: We should not rush to conclusions, and should be guided by the facts

Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- At first glance, the death of Trayvon Martin seemed to be a straightforward example of ugly, racial conflict resulting in the killing of an innocent black teenager by a white man, George Zimmerman. But now, as evidence continues to come forward, the facts seem much more complicated and the "obvious truth" premature.

At first, it was thought that Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain, was the aggressor because he followed Martin, got into a physical scuffle with him and shot him. But then, some witnesses claim that Martin attacked Zimmerman first, and the initial police report said that Zimmerman had blood on his nose and the back of his head after the incident. However, surveillance video footage that surfaced from the police station is leading to questions about the extent of Zimmerman's injuries.

To make matters more complex, we found out that in the past several months, Martin was suspended from school three times, once for the possession of drug paraphernalia.

The Miami Herald reported that in the gated community in which Zimmerman patrolled, there were eight burglaries, nine thefts and one shooting in the past year. Neighbors of Zimmerman described him as being passionate about security and credit him with thwarting and cracking some crimes. It was also revealed that Zimmerman identified himself as a Hispanic and was a registered Democrat.

William Bennett
William Bennett

The facts are confounding and inconclusive. But the tendency in the first days by some, including Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and an angry chorus of followers, was to rush to judgment with little regard for fairness, due process, or respect for the terrible death of a young man.

A mob mentality seems to be in the ascendancy.

Who does 'Stand Your Ground' protect?
Zimmerman: Trayvon 'snuck up' on George
Trayvon Martin witness breaks silence
JVM: We need to move beyond race

The New Black Panther Party offered a bounty for Zimmerman's capture.

Jackson said that Martin's death shows how "blacks are under attack" and "targeting, arresting, convicting blacks and ultimately killing us is big business." Apart from the obvious incendiary nature of such comments, what in heaven's name could Jackson mean?

Spike Lee fueled the flames by tweeting Zimmerman's home address, which turned out to be the wrong address and resulted in an older couple fleeing from their home and fearing for their lives after threats and crowds outside their residence. Lee, realizing his folly, has since apologized to the couple.

These actions and words illustrate a problem in dealing with Martin's death: Many people are not on an impartial hunt for justice but are exploiting this crisis for personal or political gain and claiming that it is representative of larger societal problems.

MSNBC political analyst and Democratic fundraiser Karen Finney blamed Martin's death on Republicans. She said, "[Republican politicians] reinforce and validate old stereotypes that associate the poor and welfare as criminal behavior with African-Americans and people of color, calling us lazy, undeserving recipients of public assistance. In the case of Trayvon, those festering stereotypes had lethal consequences."

Martin's own mother, Sybrina Fulton, filed applications for trademarks on two of the popular phrases used at rallies for Martin, "I Am Trayvon" and "Justice for Trayvon." Democrats politicized the event with a hearing on Capitol Hill in which Martin's parents testified. Later, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Illinois, wore a hoodie on the House floor.

It's clear that some of the people raising the most noise are trying to make this less about the horrible death of a young man and more about claims of racial resentment that may or may not exist.

The loudest voices should be particularly careful not to rush to conclusions. Remember the Duke lacrosse case, in which members of the team were accused of a gang rape. The public rushed to judgment long before the young men were eventually acquitted.

Zimmerman may or may not be guilty; there may or may not be racial motivations. We do not know yet. In the absence of complete evidence, inflammatory comments and belligerent reactions will not aid the search for justice. An angry crowd should not be in charge.

Lastly, why is there so much selective outrage on the part of so many?

The leading cause of death for black male teenagers is homicide, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Of all the black homicide victims, about 93% are killed by other black people. In 2011, nearly 85% of all people murdered in Philadelphia were black. Where are the marches and protests for these victims? Is it justice people seek or are they looking and even hoping for signs of white racism so they can exploit it?

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, "Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust."

While we wait and respect due process of law, we should do our part to uplift human personality. We can do so by giving both Martin and Zimmerman a just weighing of the evidence, both in the court of law and public opinion. Let us not assume the worst of anybody but be guided by the facts.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
updated 12:42 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
updated 4:29 PM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
updated 5:00 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
updated 11:57 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
updated 9:55 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
updated 8:47 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
updated 8:58 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
updated 3:14 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
updated 1:21 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
updated 7:31 AM EST, Tue November 11, 2014
Ruth Ben-Ghiat says WWI enshrined the enduring notion that words cannot adequately express the experience of combat -- that the veteran will often remain silent about the trauma of war.
updated 5:27 PM EST, Tue November 11, 2014
Obama's Asia trip is his first chance since the midterms to show the power of presidency, Michael Green says.
updated 7:34 AM EST, Tue November 11, 2014
Frida Ghitis asks why President Obama has written another letter to Iran's Supreme Leader about the nuclear deal.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT