Skip to main content

When blacks killed by non-blacks, justice rarely served

By Nicole Austin-Hillery, Special to CNN
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Mon July 15, 2013
Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, is joined by her son Jahvaris Fulton as she speaks to the crowd during a rally in New York City, Saturday, July 20. A jury in Florida acquitted Zimmerman of all charges related to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/27/justice/gallery/zimmerman-trial/index.html'>View photos of key moments from the trial.</a> Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, is joined by her son Jahvaris Fulton as she speaks to the crowd during a rally in New York City, Saturday, July 20. A jury in Florida acquitted Zimmerman of all charges related to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. View photos of key moments from the trial.
HIDE CAPTION
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Photos: Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nicole Austin-Hillery: Justice in U.S. often hollow, especially for blacks killed by non-blacks
  • She says whites can't conceive of a Zimmerman-like outcome happening with their children
  • She says killers escaping punishment in death of young blacks has long history in U.S.
  • Writer: Every verdict that fails to hold killer of black accountable erodes black's trust in courts

Editor's note: Nicole Austin-Hillery is the Director and Counsel of the Washington Office of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

(CNN) -- In the iconic film, "To Kill a Mockingbird," Atticus Finch, a white lawyer defending a black man accused of attempting to rape a white woman in the deep South, is delivering his closing argument to an all-white-male jury: "In this country, our courts are the great levelers ... in our courts, all men are created equal," he says.

Like the fictional defendant in the film, black America knows all too well that in this country, the promise of equal justice for all is often a hollow one. That is never more true than in cases where a black man or boy is killed by a non-black.

There will be much debate in the coming days about whether the not guilty verdict in the Zimmerman self-defense trial was the right or wrong outcome. Experts will analyze the strategy, tactics and performance of the prosecutors and the defense attorneys, seeking to explain it. This, however, will miss the bigger and more important point: In truth, when black boys and men are killed by non-blacks, more often than not, justice will not be served.

Nicole Austin-Hillery
Nicole Austin-Hillery

Many black parents will try to explain to their children, especially their sons, what to make of the verdict, and they may be at a loss for words. How is it possible that a black child, walking where he had a right to walk, doing absolutely nothing wrong, could be pursued, confronted and ultimately shot dead by a neighborhood watch volunteer -- and the killer escape punishment?

LZ Granderson: Trayvon could have been my son

White America cannot conceive of such a thing happening to its children, nor can it imagine that, were such a travesty to occur, the killer would escape punishment. But for black America, Trayvon Martin is the latest name on a long list of African-American men and boys whose non-black killers escaped justice in America's courts -- a list that runs from Emmett Till to Amadou Diallo to Oscar Grant to Sean Bell.

The George Zimmerman Trial: Not guilty
Jones: Dress now in tux to buy Skittles?
Twitter poll: Zimmerman guilty or not?

Often, the killers are never even charged and brought to trial, which is precisely the course that the Zimmerman case would have taken were it not for the protests of African-Americans and others across the country.

Waldman: Zimmerman case echoes issues of race, guns

There was a time in this nation's history, not so very long ago, when black America looked to the courts, particularly its federal courts, for justice, and received it, most notably in the area of civil rights. The courts, particularly the Supreme Court, were places where black America's rights were validated and vindicated.

Now, our courts are places where black America's rights are often eviscerated.

Black America's belief in the possibility of receiving justice from our legal system is eroded by every verdict that fails to hold a killer who is not black accountable for the death of a black man or boy.

I was at the mall in my predominantly African-American community doing late-night shopping when the verdict was read. Like the Black store clerks who waited on me, I did not expect that Zimmerman would be found guilty, but I did harbor that hope.

Brazile: Doing what's right not just about law

Now, my heart is heavy, not merely because Zimmerman was acquitted, but also because we as a nation have yet to make Atticus Finch's words ring true. Until we do -- until our courts are really "the great levelers" in which "all men are created equal," African-Americans killed by non-blacks will not find justice in a system that fails to demand accountability for their lost lives.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nicole Austin-Hillery

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 12:17 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 6:31 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT