Trayvon Martin case discussed by AU law students, faculty at day-long “teach-in”

April 9, 2012

Chavette Jackson has struggled with a question lately: How can she explain justice and criminal and constitutional law to high school students who wonder why nobody has been charged in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin?

Jackson, a second-year law student, teaches juniors and seniors at the District’s Dunbar High School about the justice system. Recently, however, she has worried that her students — most of whom are minority teenagers, like Martin — have trouble squaring her lessons with their perceptions of justice in Martin’s death.

“How do you teach about the law when there has been no justice in this case?” said Jackson, 26.

Martin was unarmed on Feb. 26 when he was fatally shot in Sanford, Fla., near Orlando, by a neighborhood watch volunteer who has said he fired in self-defense. The shooter, George Zimmerman, has not been charged, and the incident has sparked nationwide protest and debate.

On Monday, Jackson and other American University law students discussed ways the killing has affected their own views of the law and also tackled the case’s specific legal implications during a day-long “teach-in” and town hall.

Slava Kuperstein, 24, said Martin’s death — and his own questions about the police investigation of it — has him considering a career as a prosecutor.

“It’s definitely given me food for thought,” Kuperstein said in an interview. “This may be my calling.”

Jason Clayton, 22, one of the event’s organizers, encouraged students to continue the dialogue about race, class and justice that the Martin case has spurred.

“We’re the future prosecutors. We are the future defense attorneys,” Clayton said. “We hope to lead people to self-confront themselves so these issues of bias don’t persist.”

At the teach-in, sponsored by the school’s Black Law Students Association, faculty presented mock courtroom arguments in the case of Martin and Zimmerman, and discussed statutes and case law dealing with self-defense claims.

The event also featured a panel that included NAACP President Benjamin Jealous and former Prince George’s County state’s attorney Glenn F. Ivey. Students and others, some of whom participated through Twitter and e-mail, asked questions about issues of racial bias, profiling, media coverage and law enforcement tactics.

During the day, news broke that a special prosecutor in Florida had declined to take the Zimmerman investigation before a grand jury. That ignited questions about the grand jury system and the implications of such a decision.

Ivey suggested that if no charges were imminent, a prosecutor might let a grand jury make that call to avoid political or public fallout. “My guess is that Zimmerman is going to be charged,” Ivey said.

When the forum had ended, no verdicts had been handed down and no case law had been overturned. But the student’s association did agree to start a letter-writing campaign urging Congress and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to update legislation and government guidelines regarding racial profiling.

Jackson, meanwhile, will soon return to Dunbar — still wondering how best to reach out to her students. “We struggle for how to approach this issue of the day,” she said.

Clarence Williams is the night police reporter for The Washington Post and has spent the better part of 13 years standing next to crime scene tape, riding in police cars or waking officials in the middle of night to gather information about breaking news in and around Washington.
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