Skip to main content

When blacks killed by non-blacks, justice rarely served

By Nicole Austin-Hillery, Special to CNN
July 15, 2013 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, is joined by her son Jahvaris Fulton as she speaks to the crowd during a rally in New York City, Saturday, July 20. A jury in Florida acquitted Zimmerman of all charges related to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/27/justice/gallery/zimmerman-trial/index.html'>View photos of key moments from the trial.</a> Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, is joined by her son Jahvaris Fulton as she speaks to the crowd during a rally in New York City, Saturday, July 20. A jury in Florida acquitted Zimmerman of all charges related to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. View photos of key moments from the trial.
HIDE CAPTION
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Photos: Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nicole Austin-Hillery: Justice in U.S. often hollow, especially for blacks killed by non-blacks
  • She says whites can't conceive of a Zimmerman-like outcome happening with their children
  • She says killers escaping punishment in death of young blacks has long history in U.S.
  • Writer: Every verdict that fails to hold killer of black accountable erodes black's trust in courts

Editor's note: Nicole Austin-Hillery is the Director and Counsel of the Washington Office of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

(CNN) -- In the iconic film, "To Kill a Mockingbird," Atticus Finch, a white lawyer defending a black man accused of attempting to rape a white woman in the deep South, is delivering his closing argument to an all-white-male jury: "In this country, our courts are the great levelers ... in our courts, all men are created equal," he says.

Like the fictional defendant in the film, black America knows all too well that in this country, the promise of equal justice for all is often a hollow one. That is never more true than in cases where a black man or boy is killed by a non-black.

There will be much debate in the coming days about whether the not guilty verdict in the Zimmerman self-defense trial was the right or wrong outcome. Experts will analyze the strategy, tactics and performance of the prosecutors and the defense attorneys, seeking to explain it. This, however, will miss the bigger and more important point: In truth, when black boys and men are killed by non-blacks, more often than not, justice will not be served.

Nicole Austin-Hillery
Nicole Austin-Hillery

Many black parents will try to explain to their children, especially their sons, what to make of the verdict, and they may be at a loss for words. How is it possible that a black child, walking where he had a right to walk, doing absolutely nothing wrong, could be pursued, confronted and ultimately shot dead by a neighborhood watch volunteer -- and the killer escape punishment?

LZ Granderson: Trayvon could have been my son

White America cannot conceive of such a thing happening to its children, nor can it imagine that, were such a travesty to occur, the killer would escape punishment. But for black America, Trayvon Martin is the latest name on a long list of African-American men and boys whose non-black killers escaped justice in America's courts -- a list that runs from Emmett Till to Amadou Diallo to Oscar Grant to Sean Bell.

The George Zimmerman Trial: Not guilty
Jones: Dress now in tux to buy Skittles?
Twitter poll: Zimmerman guilty or not?

Often, the killers are never even charged and brought to trial, which is precisely the course that the Zimmerman case would have taken were it not for the protests of African-Americans and others across the country.

Waldman: Zimmerman case echoes issues of race, guns

There was a time in this nation's history, not so very long ago, when black America looked to the courts, particularly its federal courts, for justice, and received it, most notably in the area of civil rights. The courts, particularly the Supreme Court, were places where black America's rights were validated and vindicated.

Now, our courts are places where black America's rights are often eviscerated.

Black America's belief in the possibility of receiving justice from our legal system is eroded by every verdict that fails to hold a killer who is not black accountable for the death of a black man or boy.

I was at the mall in my predominantly African-American community doing late-night shopping when the verdict was read. Like the Black store clerks who waited on me, I did not expect that Zimmerman would be found guilty, but I did harbor that hope.

Brazile: Doing what's right not just about law

Now, my heart is heavy, not merely because Zimmerman was acquitted, but also because we as a nation have yet to make Atticus Finch's words ring true. Until we do -- until our courts are really "the great levelers" in which "all men are created equal," African-Americans killed by non-blacks will not find justice in a system that fails to demand accountability for their lost lives.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nicole Austin-Hillery

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2108 GMT (0508 HKT)
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 0040 GMT (0840 HKT)
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1833 GMT (0233 HKT)
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT