July 12, 2013
Florida Assistant State Attorney John Guy (Joe Burbank/AP)
Florida Assistant State Attorney John Guy (Joe Burbank/AP)

Race was not as prominent a feature in the second-degree murder trial of George Zimmerman. Perhaps that was because of Judge Debra Nelson’s ruling before opening statements that the prosecution could say that the neighborhood watch volunteer “profiled,” but not “racially profiled” Trayvon Martin, his unarmed 17-year-old victim. But we all know where the mind goes when the word “profiled” is used, especially in a case like this. Besides, from Zimmerman’s continuous calls to the Sanford Police Department involving African American men to his nonemergency call that tragic night in February 2012, race was omnipresent in this case.

So, no wonder it struck more than a few people as a little odd when Florida Assistant State Attorney John Guy told the jury during his rebuttal closing argument that the Zimmerman case was not about race. But what he did was brilliant. He used race to take race off the table and he did it by pulling a reverse Matthew McConaughey.

The 1996 movie “A Time to Kill” is set in Mississippi and stars McConaughey as country lawyer Jake Tyler Brigance. He takes the case of Carl Lee Hailey, a black man who shot and killed the two white men who raped and tortured his daughter. Hailey doesn’t stand a chance with the all-white jury, but Brigance makes a dramatic closing statement that left me in tears when I saw it in the theater 17 years ago this month.

Brigance asks the jury to close their eyes as he tells them a story. “I want you to listen to me. I want you to listen to yourselves,” he says. “This is a story about a little girl walking home from the grocery store one sunny afternoon. I want you to picture this girl. Suddenly a truck races up. Two men grab her.” And then Brigance describes every abominable thing the men did to her. Choking back tears of his own, Brigance concludes his closing with a powerful request of the jury.

I want you to picture…
…that little girl….
Now, imagine she’s white.

Guy asked the Zimmerman jury to do the same thing but with a twist. Rather than switch the race of the victim, he switched the race of the defendant.

“This case is not about race; this is about right and wrong,” he told the all-white jury of women. “What if it was Trayvon Martin who shot and killed George Zimmerman? What would your verdict be?,” Guy asked. “That’s how you know it’s not about race.”

Whether we want to admit it or not, we know the answer to Guy’s question. If the verdict would be guilty for Trayvon if he were the accused murderer then it must be the same for Zimmerman. Now, we wait to see if the jury agrees.

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