In the moment that the hoodie — Trayvon Martin’s hoodie — appeared in Courtroom 5D in Seminole County, Fla., it was as if the air sluiced out the door. There was a breathless, aching stillness.
Prosecutors displayed the dark gray sweatshirt that Martin wore on the last night of his life in an enormous, rectangular, thickly three-dimensional frame. The hoodie lay suspended between clear plastic sheets with its arms spread wide inside a cross-shaped cutout, set starkly apart from the brilliant white of the matting. It might easily have been mistaken for a religious relic, even as it became a singularly evocative entry in a long inventory of indelible courtroom artifacts from O.J. Simpson’s ill-fitting gloves to Lorena Bobbitt’s emasculating kitchen knife. Prosecutors lifted the framed hoodie awkwardly, teetering toward the jury.
“I get goose bumps just thinking about it,” says Michael Skolnik, who sat next to Martin’s parents on that morning, the day before the Fourth of July. Skolnik, the political director for hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and a member of the Trayvon Martin Foundation board, felt as if he were in the presence of something as consequential and iconic as Babe Ruth’s bat or the Declaration of Independence. “It’s like this mythical garment,” he says.
By then the hoodie wasn’t so much an exhibit in a murder trial as an idea, a cultural marker in an international conversation about race. And thus a question remains unanswered ever since that night of July 13, when jurors acquitted George Zimmerman, a gung-ho neighborhood watchman and wannabe cop, of murder and manslaughter charges in the death of Martin: What will become of the hoodie? What becomes of the courtroom artifacts of our national obsessions, of our most prurient or most substantive crime-and-justice fixations?
Will it become a museum piece? A ghoulish auction item? An object of private grief? A totem of rage? A banner of healing? Or could it disappear forever?
An uneasy fascination
There can be something uncomfortable about our relationship with these pieces of criminal lore. We want them, don’t we? But they make us uneasy. Keep them or lock them away? Flash them or stash them? Study them or exploit them?
Web sites sell serial-killer memorabilia, and some sniff with disapproval. Museums have to check their intentions — are they sensationalizing or educating? The Smithsonian passed up an opportunity to display the suit O.J. Simpson wore on the day of his acquittal; the Newseum took it instead, tilting the focus toward the news coverage rather than the man. The Newseum also displayed the Unabomber’s tiny Montana cabin, which had been taken apart and reassembled. The exhibit was a hit, but at least one observer griped: the Unabomber himself.