Confronting the Presumption of Guilt That Killed Trayvon Martin


Saturday night’s verdict in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin once again makes clear a serious problem relating to race in America. It is a problem that will victimize more young people of color until we address it honestly. Too many people in America are burdened with a presumption of guilt. Their race, their ethnicity, their religion, their nationality, and sometimes their poverty is seen as an indicator of danger, a basis for distrust or suspicion that marks them as someone to be feared, someone to be closely monitored.

The presumption of guilt generates suspicion, staring, distrustful glances when you are in a store, in an airport, or in a neighborhood that is not your own. Many African Americans have been coping with this burden for generations.

What happened in Trayvon Martin’s case is very similar to what happened to Tremaine McMillian several weeks ago. The police in Miami have not articulated any legitimate basis for jumping on 14-year-old Tremaine McMillian, throwing him to the ground, placing him in choke hold, and terrorizing him until he urinated on himself. The assertion that he gave the officers “dehumanizing stares” or looked at them in a “menacing” way is insupportable and even if he did what he is accused of, it would not provide a proper basis to throw him to the ground and arrest him. Prosecuting him for a felony makes a bad situation worse and is a misguided effort to legitimate indefensible and discriminatory misconduct by the officers involved. Not immediately dismissing these charges deepens the injuries that this child, his family, and his community must suffer.

The police are public servants charged with protecting public safety, a very difficult job. We need them to reduce tensions in communities and resolve conflicts between people. We rely on them to manage dangerous situations and contend with people who have committed criminal acts, including violent acts, a challenging job that merits our deepest appreciation. However, the complexity of the job cannot be a license to prey on people who are minorities or to victimize people unfairly. Police officers should not be looking for opportunities to arrest people who happen to question how a police officer is acting or who happen to glance at a police officer in a way that the officer assumes to be “dehumanizing.”

Like Trayvon Martin’s case, the known facts surrounding the Tremaine McMillian case suggest that the police officers involved are people who feel threatened, who feel on the defensive, who feel at-risk and vulnerable, and who are looking to respond disproportionately even to the most subtle of apparent threats. When a police officer or a police department has such a relationship with a community, things can go bad very quickly. The police will feel suspicious of everyone – even a 14-year-old kid with a white puppy on a beach – and presume guilt for something because they feel threatened by the way these people look, the way they talk, the way they act, the way they move.

Being presumed guilty is frustrating, burdensome, and exhausting. In the criminal justice system it can also be dangerous and life threatening. When police, prosecutors or judges presume someone’s guilt, lives are destroyed, and horrific injustices take place. EJI believes that there needs to be a conversation about this problem in the United States.