Real World Issues,
Five Racially Controversial Verdicts in American History
The Mississippi Delta was no doubt as muggy this summer as it was in the summer of 1955 when fourteen-year-old Emmett Till walked into a grocery store in Money, Mississippi, and with his Chicago confidence whistled at a white girl, an act he paid for with his life. The last days of that hot summer of 1955 saw the opening of the trial for the murder of Emmett Till. The trial closed with a sixty-seven minute jury deliberation by an all white male jury. Till’s assailants, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, would celebrate a “Not Guilty” of murder verdict by lighting up cigars in the courtroom.
In February 2012 Trayvon Martin’s death stroll through his father’s housing community began. We know he donned his hoodie to protect himself from the rain, sipped on an Arizona Iced Tea, popped candy into his mouth and headed to his father’s house. The now infamous next four minutes in which George Zimmerman took one look at the hoodie, the boy, his race and his casual stroll and saw a thug in the place of an ordinary teenager, ended Martin’s life. This summer, George Zimmerman’s “Not Guilty” verdict came after a two day deliberation from a jury comprised of five white female women and one Hispanic woman.
The George Zimmerman trial is one in a line of historically significant verdicts that have triggered a national debate about race relations in America. Collected here is a list of other controversial and racially-charged verdicts.
1) Emmet Till. Till’s murder is credited as a sparking the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. An exact timeline of the events surrounding Till’s death are outlined by PBS, including William Huie’s Look Magazine confession. This 1955 news article notes that the verdict came in as such due to the fact the dead body could not easily be identified as that of Till.
2) Rodney King. The LAPD beating of King following a high-speed chase was caught on tape; despite this evidence, the police officers involved in the beating were acquitted and the event is said to be the catalyst of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. A detailed chronology of the events and the trial are outlined here.
3) O.J. Simpson. In another controversial California verdict, the celebrated black football player O.J. Simpson was acquitted in a trial of the murder of his white wife. In this essay, Professor of Law Gerald Uelman tackles “The Five Hardest Lessons from the O.J. Trial.”
4) The “Subway Vigilante.” In 1984, Bernhard Goetz seriously wounded four black men on a subway train, claiming self defense—the incident brought to light issues of urban crime and weapons concealment in the United States. This 1987 New York Times article highlights the main points of the resulting trial.
5) “The Central Park Five” or “Central Park Jogger Case.” In this case involving the rape of a white female jogger in New York’s Central Park, five black men were accused of the crime then acquitted. Later evidence showed that in fact convicted rapist and murderer Matias Reyes, serving a life sentence for other crimes, was in fact the perpetrator. This New York Times Magazine article revisits the crime, while Ken Burns also produced an illuminating documentary on the subject.