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Zimmerman Trial In The Court Of Public Opinion


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Maybe it was fatigue, maybe it was the stress of a long trial, but last night came one of the most intense courtroom exchanges so far in the trial of George Zimmerman. It ended up with Judge Debra Nelson walking out of the courtroom.


DEBRA NELSON: I'm not getting into this. Court is in recess. I will give my ruling in the morning. I'll see you at eight o'clock in the morning.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Your Honor, may I have...

NELSON: Court is in recess. It is...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: It's 10:00 at night.

NELSON: ...9:56.

MARTIN: And while the case is sparking heat in the courtroom, it's also provoking some intense and passionate exchanges online in op-ed columns, in newspapers and elsewhere in the court of public opinion. We wanted to talk more about this aspect of the story, so we've called upon a group of people who've been following both the trial and the coverage, particularly on social media. Corey Dade is contributing editor for TheRoot.com. That's a news site that focuses on news of particular interest to African-Americans.

Michelle Bernard is a president and CEO the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy. She's been writing a number of op-eds about the case. Bridget Johnson is the Washington, D.C. editor of PJ Media. That's a conservative libertarian news and commentary site. They're all here in Washington, D.C. Also with us, Michael Skolnik, editor-in-chief of Global Grind. That's a news and entertainment site with a particular focus on the hip-hop community. Welcome, all of you. Welcome back to all of you, I should say.

COREY DADE: Hi, Michel.


BRIDGET JOHNSON: Thanks for having us.


MARTIN: Now, Michael Skolnik, I'm going to start with you because you've been in the courtroom watching the trial and live tweeting. Could you talk a little bit about what the perception is on Twitter about what's going on, and is that different from what's happening in the courtroom?

SKOLNIK: Sure. I just got back late last night from Sanford. I was in the courtroom Monday and Tuesday with Trayvon's family, supporting them. I think, you know, watching it on television, watching it on the Internet, live streaming it or following it on Twitter certainly is very important to pay attention to what's going on in this trial. But that courtroom, it's so small. It's so quiet. The jury is right there. They have no access, supposedly, to anything that we have outside of that courtroom. So all they are hearing is what's in that courtroom.

So all the - these sideshows, all the other, you know, issues that are going on in the media, they have no access to. They're so focused on what's going on that courtroom and frankly, you know, when - I was in the hearing last night - and when these blow-ups happened, you know, they're huge. They're huge inside that courtroom because anything that evokes emotion in such a small area, everybody feels it.

MARTIN: Corey Dade, talk a little bit about you and about what you're noticing about the kinds of conversations that are being sparked by this trial.

DADE: Yeah, as confined as it is in that courtroom, it's the polar opposite outside of it. I think if you look at the media, you look at social media, the Internet, people are seeing what they want to see. If they came into this thinking that Trayvon Martin was someone who provoked the fight, then what they watch during the trial just confirms it, and vice versa for people who think that George Zimmerman is the one who committed second-degree murder.

I think what's interesting about this is, you know, the Internet and social media now allows people to really narrow their interests, so they pick out only the news that they want and from - and told from a perspective that they want, that they agree with. So I think what I'm seeing is, you know, just an onslaught of reaction to this trial, fomented by these two sides.

MARTIN: Yeah, I'm wondering about that because is it the media that's racially polarized or is it the public? I mean, that and - Bridget, I'm looking at your site right now. Most of the coverage seems focused on exonerating George Zimmerman, from what I can see. I mean, it seems to be - I'm just looking at some of the headlines - "Deconstructing the Trayvon Martin Narrative: Nothing Left to Argue?" You have a column that's from a Harvard law professor, Alan Dershowitz, "Find Zimmerman Not Guilty." Why is that?

It that what you feel your audience wants? Is it the center of gravity among conservatives, somehow, that this is a foregone conclusion? And I will say that, of course, there are other sites, you know, progressive sites that take the opposite view. But why is that?

JOHNSON: Yeah, and, you know, first I want to note that I did not write any of those pieces that were on there, you know. I think that that news coverage needs to be more balanced. When Eleanor Holmes Norton held a forum on this after charges were brought against Zimmerman, I went and covered that. You know, I think that that coverage needs to be balanced. But the - many people on the right are holding this up as some sort of Waterloo epic battle against perceived race hustlers, and I think that that's really problematic when you go into a case with this preconceived notion about a person's innocence or guilt.

You know, people who despise the interjection of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson in this have already fervently ruled, you know, he's innocent before the first witness even took the stand. And, you know, I look at that and I see this reaction on Twitter, you know. To me, it's very disturbing. I say, you know, what would your reaction to this case be if Sharpton and Jackson had lobbied for Zimmerman, if Obama had never said, I might have had a son who looks like Trayvon?

Would they mock Zimmerman's website fundraising, note that he lied about funds and a passport? Would they brand him as a wannabe cop who had this Code 3 imagination, who brands somebody as a suspect instead of a subject? Would they demand to know why he was not tested for drugs and alcohol, even though we now know that he was on Adderall?

MARTIN: So what - so what is your conclusion here? Is it - is it you feel like that the public personalities have distorted this case, or do you feel that they're reflecting what they're hearing from the people who they talk to most? What's your take on it?

JOHNSON: I think that public personalities have, you know, already branded this as a case that is, you know, waging some sort of, you know, race baiting war, and that, you know, a lot of people who are listening to select news sources or to select people on Twitter are going along with that. And, you know, when these people seize on things like, you know, Rachel Jeantel's statements about, you know, how Trayvon worded the guy who was following him, you know, we'll ask if you removed any allegations of racism from both sides.

How would you react to a 17-year-old saying, there's a strange, creepy-looking man following me in the dark who looks like he might harm the neighbors? So people just can't strip that away right now and look at the meat of what the case is.

MARTIN: Michelle Bernard, you've written about this and one of the things you also talked about the issue that a lot of people have focused on, which was Rachel Jeantel. It's interesting that the number of people writing about this criticized the defense counsel because they felt that they were excessive in their questioning of her, who is, after all, a very young person not, you know, not a practiced professional like themselves. But also, people on social media who criticized her demeanor - it has to be said, a lot of these people were African-Americans.


MARTIN: So what's your take on this?

BERNARD: I mean, it's fascinating to watch everything that we're seeing happening in social media. A lot of people who criticized her were African-American. There were a lot of people who were white that criticized her. It was interesting and a lot of the commentary that I received after a piece I did for the Washington Post from people who either claimed to be lawyers - didn't seem to be writing like lawyers - who were absolutely furious at the criticism of Don West and felt that Rachel Jeantel deserved, you know, everything that she received, not from him as a defense attorney, but just in terms of what people were saying about her on the radio, you know, in social media.

The criticism of her weight, the criticism of the fact that she couldn't read cursive, the way that she looked, the way that she spoke, to me, all demonstrates, regardless of how you feel about it, that we have a - that we do have a race problem in the country and it's not just coming from white people. It is coming...

MARTIN: Well, what's the race...

BERNARD: ...From African-Americans as well.

MARTIN: What is that problem?

BERNARD: The problem is how we look at people and how we perceive people. People, for example, viewed her as being a less credible witness because she's African-American, because she was overweight, because she wore long false nails, for example, and just because that she was not well spoken. She wasn't articulate. She wasn't a 90 pound, blonde, white woman, speaking with, you know, in, quote unquote, the Queen's English, and people viewed her as being a less credible witness...


BERNARD: ...And to me, that's a huge problem.

MARTIN: Well, but African - but it has to be said, Michelle, that there were African-American who also were talking about this...


MARTIN: ...In these terms and saying that she was an embarrassment. So what do you make of that?

BERNARD: I think that's a problem, also. I think that I look at that as being a huge problem in the African-American community because what we should be looking at is whether she is less credible or not, simply because of her demeanor, and her testimony was credible.

MARTIN: Corey...

DADE: And I think this is...

MARTIN: ...Thoughts?

DADE: I think this is more a cultural issue than it is a racial issue, and that's what gives the opening for African-Americans to criticize her. I think, you know, the underpinning of this is that you have a jury of six women, one who's a person of color, five who are white. They're from Central Florida, and you have an African-American woman who actually has, you know, a Haitian background, Haitian lineage, and the issue is whether or not she comes across in a way that white people can embrace 'cause it's all about whether or not a jury can look at her and say, I identify with what she's saying, she's believable. And I think the criticism, even though it went beyond the pale, is really cultural. It's not racial to begin with.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're continuing our conversation about the trial of George Zimmerman. The trial is just about to conclude. Now we're talking about how this case is playing out on the court of public opinion and particularly on social media. We're talking about this with a panel of journalists and commentators: Michelle Bernard, Corey Dade, Michael Skolnik and Bridget Johnson. One of the other threads of conversation has been this question of whether the prosecution is, quote unquote, throwing the case.

This is an issue that surfaced on one of the cable shows on CNN. A CNN commentator, Mark Geragos, who's also - or - a very high-profile defense counsel. Michael Skolnik, I want to ask you about that. Again, given both perspectives, you're both tweeting and you're also - you've also been in the courtroom.

SKOLNIK: Well, I think, you know, for any commentator to make that comment is ludicrous. I think the question is, does the defense feel the prosecution is throwing the case. And obviously not because they've now called another witness after last night, saying that last night's witness was their last witness, and this witness today, who's on testifying right now, has never testified in a court of law ever. So it seems now they're desperate to get someone on the stand to help their case, and now they're trying - as we saw last night - trying even throwing more mud at Trayvon and trying to put Trayvon back on trial, as they've tried numerous times before. So if anyone thinks the prosecution is throwing the case, just look at how the defense is acting.

If the defense thought that they were going to win this case, they would've called two or three witnesses, finished their case on Monday and this case would be the jury's hands by now. So obviously, the defense is worried that they don't have a strong case either and they're fighting tooth and nail to the very end, as well.

MARTIN: Well, that's - I think one might argue that that is their job. I mean, there is that - that is what the- you know, system hinges upon, you know, zealous advocates on both sides. But in the time that we have left - we've got about six minutes left - I would like to hear from each of you as people who are both kind of in the social media and also observers. I mean, some of you have different roles, like, Michael Skolnik, you've been very up front about the fact you are a supporter of the family, that that's why you're there.

But what would you like to see happen now, as the conversations around this? Maybe it's too soon because the conclusion has not yet been reached, but do you have thoughts about just but - what - on the conversations you've seen, what you - would you like to happen now?

SKOLNIK: Sure. I mean, I also sit on the Board of Directors for the Trayvon Martin Foundation and proudly do so, and I think that, to the incredible, inspirational leadership and courage of Trayvon's parents - Sabryna Fulton, Tracy Martin - we will follow their lead after this case is over to end stand-your-ground laws across this country. I think the issue on race is not just about whether George Zimmerman profiled Trayvon Martin, it is also about the police department, for 45 days, would not arrest George Zimmerman. They believed him.

They thought Trayvon Martin was a John Doe. He was six houses away from where he was staying. They didn't even have it in their mind that he possibly lived in that community. That is what upset the African-American community, not just the fact that he was profiled, but that, for 45 days, George Zimmerman was let go free. So as we move forward, this is not just a conversation about whether or not we racially profile young black men, but also laws that are on the book that allow people to just speak to the police and go home and sleep in their bed after they shot an unarmed teenager.

MARTIN: Bridget Johnson.

JOHNSON: I would love for this - for coverage of this case to take on a dimension where it doesn't seem like people are being lobbyists for either side. And I think that the defense knew from early on that it could seize onto the whole, you know, Twitter, social media movement to try and press its case, to try and start, you know, trashing Trayvon as, you know, a thug to the point, you know, where apps came out, you know, where there's a game where, you know, Trayvon's a thug walking through a neighborhood. I mean, it's this latest thing that came out last night.

Everybody's buzzing about it, you know, online. It's like, OK, so a smack-talking teen texts about fighting and guns, that's somehow different from a guy who conceal carries and takes MMA classes. You know, we need to just, you know, cut through the almost lobbyist element of this - and I'm probably saying that 'cause I'm in D.C. all the time - and just cut to the nuts and bolts of the case.

MARTIN: Michelle Bernard.

BERNARD: You know, I would really like for people, the public at large, to begin to look at gun control and gun violence as an enormous, very important civil rights issue. We keep hearing so much during the trial about what was in George Zimmerman's mind. Was this self-defense? We've heard very little talk in social media and in court about what was in Trayvon Martin's mind.

At what point in time do we actually have a conversation about the fact that Trayvon Martin was defending himself? You know, it's not just about what George Zimmerman was doing and Trayvon Martin is dead. This is a big problem in communities of color and it is a very important civil rights issue.

MARTIN: Corey Dade, what about you?

DADE: You know, I think - I think his death and really the - what I anticipate as the acquittal of George Zimmerman or at least the...

MARTIN: You do?

DADE: ...Either the acquittal, or, you know, the jury taking up manslaughter as a potential - as a potential charge. But I think if Zimmerman is not convicted, then this goes down in history for many African-Americans as another example of justice deferred.


DADE: I think the question is...


DADE: ...You know, does this go into something justice deferred or justice denied?

MARTIN: Or could this be another example like the O.J. Simpson trial of out-lawyering?

DADE: Well, it's already that example. That's already - that's already been established. The prosecution has just been outmaneuvered. I think what's interesting is, you bring that up. I think the way that the defense used social media and the Internet will become a model for criminal defense attorneys going forward, especially in states where they have sunshine laws that allow them to dump evidence out into the public before the judge can actually weigh in and you potentially prejudice the potential juries in your communities.

MARTIN: What other conversations would you want to see...

DADE: Well, I...

MARTIN: ...Moving forward here?

DADE: I think the conversation - the most important conversation can be driven around the stand-your-ground laws, driven around sort of re-sensitizing, so to speak, the public about violence that comes to young black men in particular, and I think Trayvon's parents have a unique role to do that. I think they are poised to do that really effectively.

MARTIN: It is worth noting that the parents have said repeatedly - they've said on this program, they've said in many other venues that they do not want race to be part of this trial, that they wanted this trial to be about the facts...


MARTIN: Michelle Bernard...


MARTIN: Final...

BERNARD: But, but...

MARTIN: ...Thought?

NELSON: Race - they don't want it to be part of the trial, but it's inescapable, and if you are low income, if you're uneducated or undereducated, race is always going to be an issue and that's why this is a civil rights issue. There - somebody needs to speak for those that no one listens to, like the police department in Sanford, Florida.

MARTIN: Michelle Bernard is the president and CEO the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy. Corey Dade is a contributing editor for The Root. Bridget Johnson is the Washington, D.C. editor of PJ Media. They were all here in our Washington, D.C. studios. With us from New York is Michael Skolnik. He is the editor-in-chief of Global Grind. I want to thank you all so much for joining us for this difficult and important conversation.

BERNARD: Thanks, Michel.

JOHNSON: Thanks, Michel.

DADE: Thank you.

SKOLNIK: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.