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'A case list full of dead, young black men'

Attorney says Trayvon Martin killing one of many in United States

BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor — Special Assignment browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Friday, April 11, 2014    

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CIVIL rights attorney Jasmine Rand, who represented the family of black American teen Trayvon Martin, said his killing was just one of several such cases in the United States, where racism continues to be an ongoing struggle.

"The facts of the Trayvon Martin case are bad, but they are not unique as I have a case list full of dead, young black men," Rand told the audience at a recent public lecture held at the University of the West Indies Mona Law Faculty.

Noting that many of these cases do not get wide media attention, Rand cited one in particular in which a 21-year-old black man, Ernest Hoskins, was killed by his employer in Arkansas who accused him of having a low sales figure for that week.

"He was having a meeting with his employer who said he was not producing enough and so his employer got up, walked into the other room, got a gun, walked back into the room, shot Ernest in the head in front of other employees, put the gun down, picked up his phone, called 911 said I just shot a black man in my home... the police came over and they determined there was not enough evidence to arrest this man," Rand told her awestruck audience.

Rand explained that it was only after her boss journeyed to Arkansas, to lead a protest and speak with the media, that the police suddenly determined that there was enough evidence to charge the man.

Rand said it was similar public pressure that led to the arrest of Martin's killer, George Zimmerman, as the police were reluctant to charge him.

"The only reason Zimmerman ever got arrested was because of the involvement of the international community," she said, adding that "with this increasing globalisation it has been recognised that a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere".

Her law firm Parks & Crump's first push for justice for Martin's family was the threat to file a civil law suit against the Sanford Police Department in Florida for failing to arrest Zimmerman.

Recounting the facts of the Trayvon Martin case, Rand explained that on February 26, 2012 Martin was wearing a hoodie as he walked home from the store with Skittles and a bottle of iced tea. Zimmerman called 911 to report a suspicious person and this, she said, was the 17th suspicious young black male that he had reported to the police.

"There was not one incident in which he reported suspicious persons of any other race," Rand said.

The unarmed teen was fatally shot by Zimmerman, but it took howls of protests and demonstrations before he was arrested.

However, after Zimmerman's arrest, Rand said her firm kicked into action on hearing that the state attorney was not going to prosecute Martin's killer.

"That was seemingly another impossible barrier to getting my client justice and, again, we had to rally and continue to campaign with a new message that we wanted a special prosecution appointed by the state of Florida. This is the first time I had heard of the governor stepping in and appointing a prosecutor outside that district to prosecute the case."

But the firm did not stop there, as Rand said they also wrote to the Department of Justice to intervene because there was so much evidence that the police had co-operated with Zimmerman from the beginning.

"Zimmerman had a criminal record for assault and battery of a police officer and committed acts of domestic violence which they (the police) all brushed under the rug," Rand said.

Rand, who represented the family in the civil aspect of the case, said they were successful in getting damages in a wrongful death claim against the homeowners' association of the Retreat at Twin Lakes, the Florida housing complex where Martin was killed by Zimmerman, who was a volunteer on the neighbourhood watch.

She was, however, unable to divulge any further information about the settlement because of a confidentially stipulation.

According to lawyer, the slogan 'I am Trayvon Martin', which was forefront of the fight for justice, was coined by students during one of her university lectures.

"The 'I am Trayvon Martin' was enough to put pressure on local police to release the 911 video where we hear Trayvon Martin scream... and I believe he was calling from the grave for justice," Rand said.

According to Rand, Martin's case is symbolic of the continued problems, which exist in the United States, with racism, which, she maintains, is still rampant decades after the civil rights movement ended segregation.

Under the legal principle 'stand your ground', which Zimmerman was seeking to use as a defence, but which was eventually thrown out because of the negative publicity around it, Rand said someone can kill another because of their racial dislike and not be brought to justice.

Explaining the 'stand your ground' rule Rand said: "If someone threatens you with bodily force and you are able to retreat you have to retreat, but 'stand your ground' changes that concept. It initially applied to a person's home where you did not have a duty to retreat or run out of your home, but the problem is that the courts broadly construed the initial statute.

"They extend the 'stand your ground' law from the home to the cartilage of the home such as the pathway, courtyard which extend beyond your home. Then the court took it from the cartilage to the street, and then they decided to apply the subjective standard to the person's mind in evaluating whether they are entitled to self-defence," she said.

This subjective test as to the defendant's state of mind, she said, is what makes this rule so dangerous, because most laws are concerned with what the reasonable man in the defendant's position would have done in that situation, and that is the objective test. The subjective test, on the other hand, is what the defendant was thinking when he carried out the act.

"So most areas of our laws you have to be an objectively reasonable person... so if you have a loaded gun pointed at me, I am scared for my life, that is a reasonable fear. But the courts have interpreted the 'stand your ground' law as in, I can look at your shawl and if I say I am scared of the colour orange and I believe in my mind that the colour orange poses an imminent threat to my bodily integrity I can shoot you in the head and walk away and never go to jail," she explained.

She questioned the fact that other areas of the law do not apply such a broad subjective standard.

"If you have that subjective standard applied in a society that is not willing to accept that people who do not look like me are equal, then I get to pull a trigger because I am scared of black skin," she argued.

Until the relationship between people of different races in the United States changes, Rand said the outcome of cases like

that of Martin's will never be any different.

Because of the magnitude of the work civil lawyers like herself have to do in the black community, Rand said her firm has to take multimillion-dollar cases to fund civil rights work.

"We take a lot of civil rights cases knowing that we will actually lose money while working on them," she said.

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