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Nation divided over Trayvon Martin case?

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., Special to CNN
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Thu April 12, 2012
Activists march last week in Washington demanding justice in the death of Trayvon Martin.
Activists march last week in Washington demanding justice in the death of Trayvon Martin.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette Jr.: It's a step forward to have the Trayvon Martin case go to court
  • He says America seems divided into camps over George Zimmerman's guilt or innocence
  • The case cries out for clarity and resolution, which can only come in court, he says
  • Navarrette: Too many people have made up their minds, as they did in O.J. Simpson case

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN.com contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

San Diego (CNN) -- The case against Florida neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman -- which has, for the last several weeks, been exhaustively tried in the court of public opinion -- is now headed where it belongs: to a court of law.

Special prosecutor Angela Corey announced Wednesday that Zimmerman would be charged with second-degree murder in the tragic death of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The 28-year-old Zimmerman, who had been in hiding even from his own attorneys, turned himself in to authorities and is in police custody awaiting a hearing on the charges.

For those Americans who think that Zimmerman acted in self-defense to save his own life, the decision to charge him is tantamount to giving in to a mob. In fact, as I skipped from one conservative talk radio show to another Wednesday afternoon, that's how I heard it described by hosts and callers alike.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Yet, for those who believe that Zimmerman was the aggressor in this fateful encounter, that he racially profiled Martin and then essentially hunted him down, the decision represents something else: justice. That's how Martin's family described it in applauding Zimmerman's arrest.

Personally, I'm thankful the suspect is in custody. And that has nothing to do with which team I'm on -- Team Martin or Team Zimmerman. That's irrelevant. But, if you must know, I don't have a team. I don't know that really happened on the night of February 26 on that dark street in Sanford, Florida. And neither do you. After all, we weren't there.

How Martin family is coping in spotlight
Toobin: Corey 'threw the book at him'
Zimmerman family 'devastated'
Attorney: Zimmerman 'stressed, tired'

Of course, we all have our biases. And some of mine come from being the son of a retired cop who spent 37 years on the job. From that vantage point, I would just as soon people like Zimmerman leave the police work to the professionals. And yet, even so, once the struggle began and the two men are wrestling on the ground, if Zimmerman felt his life was threatened, I can't condemn his decision to use deadly force to defend himself.

I'm only sure of this much: This case had to go to trial. It had to be this way. Whether you think Zimmerman is innocent or guilty, we all should be able to agree on that much. We couldn't go on otherwise, with one segment of the country believing that someone got away with second-degree murder and the suspect looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life.

This case cries out for clarity and resolution, and the only place to get either is in court. We need to be able to see and hear the evidence, and let a jury decide whether Zimmerman is guilty as charged or whether he acted in self-defense.

Whatever the verdict turns out to be, let's hope that both camps are mature enough to accept it. I'm not hopeful. Too many people have already made up their minds. In fact, it's hard to see how Zimmerman can get a fair trial -- especially in Seminole County.

The strain is showing. The country hasn't been this racially divided since the O.J. Simpson criminal trial in 1995. And as with that trial, how you see these events seems to have a lot to do with the color of your skin.

But this time, there's a twist. During the Simpson trial, when the defendant was black and the victims were white, polls showed that most whites thought the former football star was guilty, while African-Americans urged us to wait for the evidence to come in. In the Martin case, the roles are reversed as many African-Americans seem quick to convict Zimmerman and many whites urge us to wait for the evidence to come in.

That's not a good sign. Do Americans need better laws, or just better memories?

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.

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