The Washington Post

Was Trayvon Martin's death a hate crime?

Mar 21, 2012

Laywers at the Department of Justice said Tuesday that the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed Feb. 26 by a neighborhood watch volunteer, might be difficult to prove as a hate crime. According to two department officials, civil rights law protects against 'hate crimes' or actions by police officers, but Martin's shooting may not have either of those elements.

Do you think Martin's death was a hate crime? Who should decide, and how much of the case should focus on this aspect? Are hate crime laws a good or bad thing?

Bradley Hirschfield discussed this topic and more.

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The death of Trayvon Martin is not only a tragedy, it is a horror.  Although the facts have not been fully investigated, it sure seems like an unqualified and deeply angry guy with a gun killed an innocent young man, and now gets to hide behind the "stand your ground" law in Florida.  On top of that, local authorities took little action at the scene, only getting seriously involved when the case drew national attention, including from the US Department of Justice. 


That said, I remain concerned about all this hate crime talk.  Was this a hate crime?  What evidence exists for that claim?  Wouldn't it make more sense to simply demand that the law was enforced and that this needless death was fully investigated and the shooter held accountable for what he did, not what he may have felt?


What do you think?  Join in now!

I don't think a lot of these crimes are hate, per se, as much as fear. I know that I would be afraid of these "gangsta" type young black men, and so many of the criminals we see on the news, in the paper, etc., seem to be black. If I were to shoot one, it would be purely out of fear--no hate involved.

I see.  And I do appreciate your honesty about being afraid.  I wish more people were that honest.  But I also think that your analysis is pretty disturbing. 


Is the fact that you, or anyone else, may have an abiding fear of all young balck men deemed to be "gangsta type" would, in some way, either justify or mitigate guilt if you shot one of "them"?  I am not sure which is more disturbing -- that you could make such a claim or that you fail to appreciate that your fear is driven by the very hatred which you deny?


And before either you or anyone else accuse me of the very political correctness which I loathe, let me be clear:  a disproportionate amount of violent crime in this country is committed by people of color.  Perhpas we are not supposed to acknowledge that, but it is a fact.  That fact however, does NOT justify shooting people because of their race and ethinicity.  Poor whites commit more crimes than do wealthy whites.  Would you also substitute fear for hatred in your analysis of a situation where someone shot a poor white kid walking in a welthier neighborhood?

How can you even question if this is a good law? We need these kinds of laws in place until people get the message that hate crime is not permissible.

I question any law that substitutes punishing thought over action, which is what hate crimes laws do.  Dead is dead, and it is Trayvon's death that should be punished.


The criminal code is not an educative tool, as you suggest.  It is a tool for administering justice for bad acts.  And as horrific, dangerous, and in some places stubbornly pervasive as racism is, we should not use criminal prosecutions to address that.


If there is any utility to hate crimes legislation, it would be in assuring that crimes against all people, regardless of racem ethinicity, sexuality, or any other single issue, were prosecuted with equal care and forcefullness.  All people need to be defended equally and all crimes need to be punished equally.  That's the right message to be getting out there.

I don't know. And you know what? The truly appalling part in this is that initially no one bothered to find out. When a police officer shoots somebody in the line of duty, it's my understanding that there is always an inquiry into the circumstances. But when a civilian shoots a 17 year-old, they just take him at his word and send him on? This is the part that truly saddens me.

I am soooo with you.  Only it not only saddens we -- apparently I am not as sensitive as you are -- it angers me.  We actually do not know if this was racially motivated murder, a terrible error, or what it was, because there has not yet been the kind of investigation which should have started on scene the night that Trayvon was shot.


I appreciate that because of the "stand your ground" law, officers may have been precluded from taking some steps, but how little was done is beyond belief.  At least Florida's Governor just came out saying that it might be a good idea to revisit this law.  You think?!

You shouldn't appreciate the "honesty" of someone in an anonymous chat. There is a very good reason why "letters to the editor" have to be signed. You have no idea if someone is being honest or just "making it up." Signed, George Washington.

Thanks for the advice and cynical attitude with which it was offered.  I do appreciate the value of self-identification, and also the value of anonymity -- each simultaneously encourages AND discourages participation in valuable ways.   I prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt.  And as the only participant in this conversation with full transparency and the greatest control, I have the most at stake, so that is not only my right, but the right thing to do.

Even if it wasn't a hate crime, isn' t the bigger point that The "Stand your Ground" law in Florida is a horrible law? According to legal experts, if you'd like to kill someone with impunity in Florida, you simply need to do it somwhere withouut witnesses and shoot the person in the chest. Then you simply say you thought your life was in danger because that person was about to attack you. The police won't charge you and you get away with murder, literally.

I don't know about "bigger point", but "stand your ground" at least as it has been used, is a pretty lousy law.  Last year alone, it was used to avoid even full investigation into 40 deaths!  However well-intentioned this law may have been, it needs to be revisited, if not altogether revoked.

We shouldn't care if it's a hate crime. I think debating on if it's a hate crime is a total distractor, and excuses prosecutors. I've read over the years about shootings over a bike (here in DC), knocking on a door (Japanese guy in Louisiana), and others. Why care about intent? Clearly we should wait until the basic facts are clear here, but regardless of black/white/asian, Muslim/Jewish/Christian, following somebody and assaulting, beating,raping or killing is an act of total disrespect and hatred for anyone. It's the prosecution that's the problem. Let me phrase it this way - if a white teenager cominb back from a 7-11 was followed down the street and shot, do you think we'd be debating on the grounds for prosecution?

I think we agree.  Dead is dead, and it should not matter beyond that.  I happen to think that there were probably racial issues here, but it does not matter.  What matters is that by pretty much all accounts, SO FAR, an innocent teenager was followed around until he was shot for carrying a can of iced tea. 


Intent can and does matter in terms of how the crime came to happen i.e. planned or not, etc.  But the identity of the victim -- how white or black, rich or poor, etc. should not matter at all.  The only time when issues of hatred should be explored is when any hatred on the part of authorities keeps them from fully pursuing crimes against those they may dislike.  That IS a hate crime, and one which should be pursued.

What sort of oversight does the DOJ and the FBI have over the Samford police? If they conclude that the death itself was not a hate crime, is there a way to prosecute Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin?

Rep.s for DOJ spoke, albeit anonymously, about how difficult, if at all possible a federal prosecution would be.  The value in this case however is that by pursuing the case, they are compelling local and state authorities to properly do their own jobs.  That is of enormous value, no?

This guy should be arrested for murder. He voluntarily pursued someone who was doing nothing wrong. Then he shot him. The races don't matter. You should be able to lock someone up for murder without calling it a hate crime.

As your answer presume things which are not at least yet legally established facts, it's hard to agree with your initial conclusion.  That said, it is simply impossible to accept that the shooter has not been arrested for something, and a real effort to establish the facts has not occured.


That race must not be an issue is certain, and you are totally correct about the killers racial feeling being beside the point.  Does anyone think that his parents really care why they are burrying their son, or simply in agony over his senseless loss?

I would say that the reason why hate crimes should be punished more than a standard murder is that the motivation means they are more likely to be a larger danger to society. If someone kills their neighbor in a fight over something in particular, that is a more isolated incident, and while that person clearly needs some help, the hate crime killer would be more likely to do multiple harmful things to society, ie organize a larger discrimination effort, use violence against the same target group again, etc. Motive should be a factor in our laws because they can help predict future actions and guide us to the most effective treatment.

Are you, by any chance of "The Adjustment Bureau"?  Do you really want to punish people for what they might do, and opposed to what they have actually done?  I get why that might seem tempting, but think about it.


What if we developed a mind scan which could determine your inner thoughts, and then, if they made you more likely to commit a crime, proactively imprison you?  I think not.  How about you?

ABC is reporting that portions of 911 calls were not initially released, including comments from Zimmerman about "[expletive] [racial slur]." To my mind, that drastically changes the situation - Zimmerman was going off of race and stereotypes. The bigger question here, is did the Police "errors" (a polite term) mean that ultimately no conviction is possible? Thoughts?

The reports only indicate that some have alledged that racial slurs were recorded.  The most recent analysis of which I know (in the last 60 minutes) is from audio experts at CNN who listened and found it impossible to determine what Zimmerman said.  What was clear was his refernce to "they"  "always getting away with it".  Who "they" is, is not clear but it certainly indicates that he was pretty angry, not only at the young man he was persuing, but at a whole class of people for whom this kid had come to stand, at least in Zimmerman's mind.  That is the hallmark of someone who can no longer responsibly enforce the law.


What is possible as this works it's way through the courts will have to be seen.  And while nothing will bring Trayvon back to his mom and dad, and the shooter may not see justice, the fact that this story may cause a shift in the stand your ground law could save many lives and lead to the prosecution of many killers, which is at least a form of justice.

You wrote "I question any law that substitutes punishing thought over action". I feel like I need to challenge that. True, dead is dead. But what about in cases where a victim isn't dead? If someone is harassing my girlfriend and I beat them up because of it I feel that is a different threat to society vs. someone seeking out someone who is black, or Jewish or gay to beat them because of who they are and therefore deserves a different reaction.

It's a great and totally fair question, but my answer remains the same.  Harassment is harassment and beaten is beaten.  It may be that some members of society merit more proactive protection because they are especially vulnerable, and providing that protection is not only worthy but appropriate.  But when it comes to a specific crime, the act, and the act alone, should be punished.  That is part of what it means for all people to be equal under the law.

I think the case raises all kinds of issues with this "see something, say something" culture we're in. Who's to say the person reporting this, in this case, Mr Zimmerman, isn't the one who's messed up? It's guilt by accusation.

Not at all.  "See something, say something" is actually a wise and useful approach to combatting crime in general and terror inparticular, which is where the phrase has been most-invoked.


Where you are correct is that a report of something suspicious is just that -- a report, not a fact, of something which MAY be a crime.  In fact, the police had told Zimmeran to break off his pursuit, which is why it is unbelievable that he has never been detained!


"See something, say something" only works when people understand that they are NOT the police, and that failing to ignore proper authorities is itself a crime.  Without that, community-minded awarenss becomes ugly mobocracy.

I don't know if that was a hate crime or not - but it probably was - But, I'm amazed that in this day and age, a white guy can shoot a black guy and NOT GET ARRESTED? I can see the police arresting him and releasing him with a low bail, but to not arrest a guy who shoots a kid? Based on "I felt threatened" - that's beyond insane.

What's particulalry and painfully ironic is how the hate crimes issue and the stand your ground law are related.  the former because it focuses on feeling rather than though to increase the severity of a crime, and the latter, which focuses on feelings to mitigate or excuse a crime!


Here's a thought, especially as there is typically an inverse proprotion between those who support one and the other -- political conservatives being more supportive of stand your ground and liberals of hate crimes legislation -- let's get rid of both!  let's punish criminals for what they do and let's not give people people excuses for shooting others because they felt like it.

Why did the Sanford police not do a drug/alcohol test on Zimmerman? He had just used deadly force, with no witnesses. Yet they tested Trayvon Martin for drugs and alcohol. Also, since Mr. Zimmerman "pursued" Trayvon how could that be called self-defense?

Great question, and all too accurate.  At some level, some very scary and disturbing level, this isn't even about race, and it sure isn't about Trayvon or even Zimmerman and why he was allowed to ignore police isntructions without consequence.  There is a piece of this that is about the love of guns -- a national addiction to firearms and people's right to have them and use them  pretty much at will.


There is noway to prove any of this yet, but as the story unfolds, i would not be surprised to see that Zimmerman was as much a pawn in this as Tryavon.  That does not mean he should not be investigated and prosecuted.  It simply means that I can easily picture a situation in which nobody wanted to rock the boat with a case that so clearly indicated how bady the stand your ground law was working. 

So many good questions and heartfelt comments still in line, but our time is at hand.


I close with wishes of comfort to the family of Trayvon Williams and to all those who cared for him, and the plea that this issue not be allowed to drop from the headlines.


Don't forget that you can find me on facebook and follow me on twitter @bradhirschfield, where we can continue the conversation.


"Till next week, Peace.


Brad Hirschfield

In This Chat
Bradley Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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