Only a few BYU students expressed opinions about the verdict of the George Zimmerman trial and subsequent rallies when a sampling of students were asked to share their thoughts.
Florida resident George Zimmerman, 28, was brought to trial last month for the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The jury found him not guilty of both second-degree murder and manslaughter when the incident sparked public outcry, as many claimed that Martin was targeted because he was a young, African-American male.
Across the country, activists took to the streets, protesting the verdict. In Los Angeles, rallies have been held since the verdict was announced. Protests have turned violent in places such as Oakland, Calif., and New York. Demonstrators marched through the streets wearing Martin-inspired hoodies, the more violent among them vandalizing cars, stopping traffic and attacking bystanders.
At Brigham Young University, the reaction to the trial was much less severe. As protesters are arrested in California and New York, life on the BYU campus remains largely unaffected by the national response to the Zimmerman trial. Even if there are students who feel strongly that a murder conviction was justified, there have been no “Justice for Trayvon” rallies here.
“You know, I really don’t have any idea what’s going on,” said Haley Burns, a 20-year-old nursing major.
Many other BYU students echoed the sentiment, blaming absence on missions or simple lack of interest for their unfamiliarity with the case.
Although it is a high-profile case in the media and around the country, many students at BYU have difficulty understanding how they relate.
“Honestly, I’ve paid way more attention to the Snowden thing,” said Sarah Decker, an English major, referring the incident with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has fled the country.
Even those at BYU who have expressed an interest in the case do not necessarily side with the protesters, who have accused Zimmerman and the court system of being racist. Josh Smith, a 22-year-old physiology and developmental biology major, feels differently.
“Personally, after listening to witnesses in video clips and having read the proceedings of the court case, I believe that Zimmerman was attacked and acted in self-defense,” Smith said. “He put himself in a poor position, but was only trying to help.”
Zimmerman had been elected as the neighborhood-watch coordinator and was driving when he came upon Martin, who he believed looked suspicious. The Retreat at Twin Lakes, the gated community where Zimmerman lived, had experienced several burglaries and attempted break-ins in the months before the shooting.
Questions surrounding the incident include whether Zimmerman was motivated to approach Martin because of his race, who began the altercation, and which individual was screaming for help on a 911 call made during the fight. The inability of witnesses to prove Zimmerman’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt was one of the factors that resulted in a not guilty verdict.
For biophysics major Skyler Perkes, 23, the existence of reasonable doubt in the conclusion of the trial is enough to call for an end to the unrest sweeping the country.
“I can’t say whether or not Zimmerman was attacked and truly merited fearing for his life,” Perkes said. “The thing is though, that after 50 witnesses had testified in court about various things, it was still unclear. That is exactly why Zimmerman should not be thrown in jail. We live in a society where we are innocent until proven guilty, although in this case many people wanted a guilty until proven innocent verdict and are upset at our system.”
Both Smith and Perkes expressed frustration with the reactions to the case from the media and the nation in general. Zimmerman was initially released from police custody, and charges were pressed only after word about the incident got out.
“The whole case has been hijacked by the media and by public opinion, which is not the way the courts should work,” Smith said. “This is mob justice, not real justice.”
Perkes was especially disappointed with President Barack Obama’s remarks from March of last year, when he said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
“You are a president of the United States. You do not take sides in a judicial hearing,” Perkes said. “I felt that this statement was more politically motivated than just support of a family who lost a son.”
Since the conclusion of the trial, Obama has called for peace, and has asked Americans to think only of how they can prevent tragedies from occurring in the future. He has not offered a personal opinion of the verdict.