In Zimmerman trial, it’s a jury of millions

Updated 2:44 PM EDT, Tue July 9, 2013

Story highlights

There are about 13,000 U.S. murders annually; why does this case fascinate us?

CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin: Case is at intersection of guns, race, self-defense, kids

Trial is "the equivalent of O.J. Simpson for the next generation," a radio host says

Many people have an emotional investment in the outcome of the trial

(CNN) —  

When the jury emerges from deliberations days or weeks from now to render its verdict in that Florida courtroom, when the family of Trayvon Martin leans forward in breathless anticipation and when George Zimmerman stands to hear his fate, you can bet your Disney vacation the whole affair will end badly.

Not because Zimmerman, on trial in the shooting death of Martin, will be found guilty or not guilty, but because millions of Americans have already made up their minds about what should happen. Large swaths of people are going to be disappointed no matter how the verdict falls. Probably more like outraged.

This is odd, because FBI statistics show there are about 13,000 murders annually; people shot, stabbed, beaten, run down with cars and thrown off of balconies; 13,000 times that we could get interested, get involved and pass public judgment.

So what is it about this lone killing that has inflamed passions to such a degree?

At Georgetown University in the offices of history and African-American studies, associate professor Maurice Jackson has an answer. At 60, he is old enough to have lived through the glory days of the civil rights movement and young enough to still fear for his own son’s life in a dangerous world. Does DNA evidence contradict Zimmerman?

“I think this is very important to black people because it brings to mind their worst fears that this could happen to their sons. You have a kid with everything going for him, doing no harm, and going about his business, and all of a sudden he is marked.”

From his syndicated radio show in Dallas, conservative host Ben Ferguson has a different take.

“This has had everything to do with manipulation and race war from day one,” he says, citing what he has heard from listeners. “This is a life-changing, life-altering court case, and I’m not so sure people really care about if justice is served truly. It’s more: Did my side win or not?”

And at the trial itself, CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin believes the fascination lies in all that and much more.

“People care about gun rights. People care about race. People care about children. People care about the right to defend yourself. And this case has all of them wrapped up together, and that’s rare.”

Case didn’t start out as big news

Although it is hard to remember now, there was a time when this case was far from a national obsession. At first, the shooting on that rainy Sunday night in late February 2012 was barely a blip in the media.

A few Florida news outlets picked it up, but as the days passed and interest faded, it seemed destined to fall into that neverland of sad, forgotten stories with headlines like, “Young black man shot; police investigating.”

Trayvon Martin shooting: Fast Facts

But the victim’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, were convinced that the police were not investigating nearly enough. “I think this is very much about two parents who felt that their child was murdered,” Hostin says.

They pushed for greater exposure for their complaints and were connected with Tallahassee lawyer Ben Crump. Crump enlisted others, spread the word, and a week and a half later, their efforts paid off.

Reuters published what the MIT Center for Civic Media found to be the first major national news item, and it heavily quoted Crump. In just under 500 words, he laid out what is now the prosecution’s script:

Trayvon Martin was a high school junior who hoped to become a pilot. He went to the store for Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea. Zimmerman (who has Latino roots and is incorrectly identified as white in the story) deemed him “suspicious,” stalked him and shot him in the chest.

“He was a good kid,” Crump told Reuters “On his way home, a Neighborhood Watch loose cannon shot and killed him.”

And in the final sentence, Crump slammed down the race card. “Why is this kid suspicious in the first place? I think a stereotype must have been placed on the kid.”

The next day, “CBS This Morning” picked up the story, and soon it was blazing into the homes, computers and smartphones of close to 3 million Americans and climbing according to that MIT study.

A petition on started filling with what would add up to more than 2 million signatures.

In Florida, the Sanford Police Department’s checkered past with race relations came under scrutiny. Celebrities railed about injustice. Young people marched in hoodies, carrying bags of candy. The New Black Panthers, an activist group for African American rights, offered a reward for Zimmerman’s capture. Even President Barack Obama weighed in, saying “You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

Tapes of 911 calls were released, fueling the media frenzy, especially when NBC edited Zimmerman’s comments in a way that many saw as unfair, imparting a racial tone to his comments that is missing in the original recordings. The network later apologized.

And of course, there were the photos.

As the story heated, news agencies everywhere favored pictures of the victim from several years earlier, showing him not as a 6-foot-something 17-year-old but as a fresh-faced kid, a child really.

On a People magazine cover, an image of Martin looking like a seventh- or eighth-grader, incapable of any menace, appeared next to the words “An American Tragedy.” And the die was cast: The killing evolved into an unstoppable narrative that spurred a national outcry for justice, and 45 days after the deadly encounter, Zimmerman was charged with murder.

That is as it should be, says George Ciccariello-Maher, a researcher at Drexel University in Philadelphia, who has written extensively about race.

He defends Martin’s reaction to Zimmerman with a simple precept: The teenager