Police officers arriving on the scene of an early-evening shooting on February 26, 2012, in the Florida town of Sanford had no way of knowing they were beginning an investigation that would lead to the most racially charged criminal case since O.J. Simpson’s in 1995. At the time, the shooting likely seemed tragic, a bit unusual, but not all that difficult to investigate. An armed neighborhood-watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, shot and killed an unarmed teen, Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman claimed Martin had attacked him without any justifiable provocation.

After a few days of investigation, the state of Florida declined to file charges. Martin’s family began drumming up publicity to correct what they believed to be a terrible injustice. The Republican governor appointed a special prosecutor who filed second-degree murder charges against Zimmerman two months after the incident—pleasing those in the media and on the left who had quickly taken up the cause of the slain teen. He was killed, they claimed heatedly, for the crime of “walking while black.”

In response, conservatives seem to have developed a rooting interest in Zimmerman’s innocence. Listen to conservative talk radio, read conservative comment boards, read many conservative pundits, and you will see a relentless critique of the state’s evidence against Zimmerman, angry denunciations of the left’s abuse of the case for political gain, and even outright scorn for the idea that Zimmerman might be guilty of any crime at all.

This response is troubling on the merits, but it also contradicts a number of important conservative values. Zimmerman’s behavior on February 26 was problematic at best, and extreme rhetoric in his defense may one day come to haunt the conservative movement.

This much we know: Martin left his father’s girlfriend’s home to buy a drink and some candy from a local convenience store. On his way back, roughly 40 minutes after sunset, he was spotted by Zimmerman, who was patrolling the neighborhood in his capacity as a volunteer neighborhood-watch captain. Zimmerman began following Martin and called the police to report “a suspicious person.” Around the same time, Martin was talking to his girlfriend on his cellphone and reportedly told her that he was being followed.

The facts of what happened next are sharply in dispute. Between 7:10 p.m. and 7:25 p.m. (roughly an hour after sunset), Zimmerman and Martin had a confrontation, a scuffle ensued, Zimmerman suffered cuts to the back of his head, someone screamed for help, and Zimmerman fatally shot Martin in the chest. Martin was unarmed.

In the defense’s version of events, Zimmerman broke off his pursuit of Martin when Martin doubled back and attacked him, slamming Zimmerman’s head against the ground. Zimmerman screamed for help, didn’t know if Martin was armed, and shot Martin in self-defense while in reasonable fear for his life.

In the prosecution’s version of events, Zimmerman alarmed Martin by following him and then initiated a confrontation. The prosecution has not affirmatively stated who started the actual fight, but it asserts that Martin, not Zimmerman, screamed for help, and Zimmerman then shot Martin without any reasonable fear for his own life.

First came the liberal outrage. Within days of the shooting, it became clear that Zimmerman would face no criminal sanction. Not only was the state refusing to charge him, local officials even resisted releasing crucial information about the case. The early narratives from the media and the left went something like this: A young, unarmed black male was shot dead in a “gated community” by an armed white neighborhood-watch officer. The black kid was guilty of nothing more than walking. No charges were filed because the white man was taking advantage of a misguided Florida law rammed through the legislature by pro-gun zealots that allowed him to “stand his ground.”

Even worse, as community outrage grew, local officials circled the wagons, resisted releasing important evidence, and engaged in insensitive and defiant rhetoric (the Sanford police chief allegedly claimed that his words defending his department wouldn’t “mean anything to anybody” because he’s a “white man in a uniform”).

Outrage continued to grow. Martin’s parents launched a petition drive on Change.org that quickly became the second-most-popular petition in the site’s history. The toxic combination of Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, MSNBC, and the Huffington Post led to an already emotional case being litigated against a backdrop of public hysteria. NBC News actually doctored recorded 911 calls to make Zimmerman appear blatantly racist. The New York Times invented new ethnic terminology by dubbing Zimmerman, whose mother is Peruvian, a “white Hispanic” in a transparent attempt to keep the racial angle alive.

Hardwired to resist race-baiting, MSNBC’s outrage, Sharpton’s demagoguery, NBC’s misconduct, and the New York Times’s stylistic games, many conservatives feared an innocent man was about to be sacrificed on the altar of political correctness. Just as the left read the facts most favorably to Trayvon Martin and the prosecution, some on the right took the opposite approach, effectively accepting Zimmerman’s version as truth and hammering at the weak points of the case. Video evidence uncovered by ABC News showed Zimmerman with a wound on his skull that night, which strengthened the counternarrative.

The case became yet another battle in the larger cultural war between red and blue America—and the rhetoric used by the right reflected that. Even as Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center rightfully called out the mainstream media for editing Zimmerman’s 911 call and called out leftist politicians for publicly proclaiming Zimmerman’s guilt, he also added, “This is another Tawana Brawley moment we’re looking at here, folks”—referring to the notorious New York hoax in which a young woman falsely claimed she’d been gang-raped by white public officials. But the analogy made no sense except for Sharpton’s repugnant involvement in both cases; Brawley had never been attacked, whereas the one unassailable fact of the Florida case was that Trayvon Martin was dead.

On March 29, 2012, Rush Limbaugh called the case the “next Duke lacrosse”—another problematic analogy, because (as in the Brawley case) the black prostitute who accused the white players on the lacrosse team of raping her had not been raped. George Will made the same comparison on This Week. Googling “Trayvon Martin and Duke lacrosse” yields more than 50,000 results.

On the fringe, more intemperate voices attacked Martin’s character. The blog Wagist appears dedicated to not merely vindicating George Zimmerman, but also destroying Martin’s reputation. A post entitled “Was Trayvon Martin a Drug Dealer?” garnered 17,000 comments (and counting) and was picked up at the Free Republic and a number of other aggregation sites. Writers have commented on Martin’s gold teeth and tattoos and wondered aloud about his suspensions from school. These assaults on a dead kid who cannot defend himself have occurred despite the lack of any credible allegation that Martin was doing anything unlawful when Zimmerman started following him through the neighborhood.

At arguably the lowest point of the public controversy, John Derbyshire even went so far as to write a column that used the racial conversations surrounding the Martin case to suggest that the incident proved it would be unwise for any white person to come to a black person’s aid lest the black person be planning to commit a crime against the white person. The column, which appeared on the website Taki’s Magazine, was so entirely beyond the pale that National Review promptly ended its many-years-long relationship with Derbyshire.

Zimmerman’s defenders have glossed over his action in following a law-abiding citizen after sunset as nothing more than an exercise of his rights as a citizen and neighborhood-watch captain. The sociologist John Lott Jr.—in a post questioning whether the “affidavit of probable cause” in the Martin case was legally sufficient—wrote on National Review Online: “Surely Zimmerman had the right to investigate a strange person in his neighborhood.” Yet this assertion ignores the on-the-ground reality that such behavior would be incredibly alarming and possibly threatening to the person being followed.

To be sure, conservative pushback at the astounding and reckless media excesses in this case (doctoring tapes, advancing a one-sided narrative, granting a platform to racial agitators such as Al Sharpton) is important and necessary. But the proper function of conservative citizens and commentators isn’t merely to be the yin to the liberal yang. They should instead exhibit a core responsibility to the truth and to particular principles of public life—principles that call for a more measured and neutral approach to the case.

To be understood, those principles should be separated from the emotion and politics of the case. Viewed as a discrete set of facts, the case (as presently understood) should trouble conservatives deeply. It should trouble them that Zimmerman was exonerated after what appears to have been a relatively cursory initial investigation, and they should not so easily leap to the conclusion that the new prosecutor’s charging decision was irresponsible and politically motivated.

Three key principles dictate caution.

First, most conservatives rightly believe that public spaces belong to law-abiding citizens and not to menacing aggressors. In fact, this is one of the core principles behind the much-maligned “stand your ground” law that supposedly kept Zimmerman from being charged in the first place. But if the public spaces belong to the law-abiding and not to aggressors, don’t Zimmerman’s actions raise as many (if not more) questions than Martin’s?

 After all, not even the most zealous Zimmerman defender has credibly accused Martin of initially doing anything other than walking home from the store—an entirely lawful act. If a teenager is followed after sunset by an unknown man, there are two predictable reactions: (1) The teen would likely be frightened, and (2) most reasonable observers would see that fright as reasonable and the unknown man as a potential threat.

Contra John Lott, citizens do not have a blanket right to “investigate a strange person in [their] neighborhood.” No such broad right exists in the Constitution, relevant statutes, or common law. Zimmerman’s alleged right to investigate is certainly limited by Martin’s right to walk in public spaces free from threats or threatening behavior. Were Zimmerman’s actions reasonable or unreasonable? Could Zimmerman have been reasonably viewed as a threat to Martin, and did Martin thus have the right to “stand his ground” rather than Zimmerman? Those questions will be critical at trial, and it will not be settled by the assertion of any “right” to investigate Martin.

Second, conservatives should not be inclined to trust without question the actions of local law enforcement. There is no evidence that a single national conservative commentator knew the first thing about the competence or character of the individuals who made the initial decision not to charge Zimmerman. They don’t know whether those local officials are wise, foolish, or free from racist taint. But they do know, or should know, that public officials (even public-safety officers) make mistakes even when they have the best of intentions, and they should also understand the need not only for constitutional constraints on police actions but also for public accountability. 

Let us be clear about the law-enforcement action Martin’s parents were protesting at the outset: It was an unreviewable decision by a prosecutor not to charge (not even for manslaughter) an armed man who killed their unarmed son. And that decision appears to have been based not on conclusive evidence of Zimmerman’s innocence but on a subjective assessment that Zimmerman’s self-defense claim would be difficult to overcome. Do conservatives trust prosecutors to make that call? Or is that more properly a function of a grand jury?

Third, conservatives should be the last people in America to support or defend reckless behavior with a lawfully carried firearm. Whatever the verdict, an unarmed teenager is dead because an armed citizen behaved at best foolishly. He wrongly profiled a kid as a threat (it’s not known whether the profiling had a racial component), followed him on foot (at least for a time), and shot him after apparently losing a fistfight. Second Amendment activists—including, most notably, the National Rifle Association—put their commitment to safety, sobriety, and responsibility in gun ownership at the center of their advocacy. Liberalizing gun laws is not supposed to mean liberalizing behavior. In fact, one of the best arguments for concealed-carry laws is that concealed-carry permit holders have excellent conduct (for example, in Texas, concealed-carry permit holders are substantially less likely to commit a crime, in any category). The thriving sport-shooting community is similarly committed to safety. In contrast with the safety commitments of the NRA, the vast majority of concealed-carry permit holders, and the sport-shooting community, Zimmerman’s behavior crossed a line.

In fact, the gun-owning community is marked by a deep respect for life. This point may be counterintuitive to gun-control advocates, but the motivation for liberalizing gun laws is often about reducing violence, reducing death. Predators tend to be empowered by helpless prey. If the prey isn’t helpless, then he’s often not prey at all. In fact, in multiple states the enactment of concealed-carry laws coincided with significant drops in gun crimes, and every year thousands of citizens report using a weapon to save their own lives or the lives of others.

In short, conservatives realize that the problem isn’t the gun itself, but the mind-set of the person using it. But is anyone ready to argue that Zimmerman had the right mind-set for a concealed-carry permit holder when he initiated the chain of events that led to Martin’s death?

The facts as known—viewed in light of the three principles above—paint a worrisome picture. Yet Zimmerman was originally exonerated after a cursory investigation when the prosecutor actually overruled the lead investigator’s charging recommendation. This is the opposite of the Duke lacrosse and Tawana Brawley cases. In both those cases, there was no actual victim (no one was actually raped or assaulted), and yet there was a rush to judgment. In this case there is unquestionably a victim and there was a rush to exonerate.

None of the above indicates that conservatives should stampede to the other extreme and join those rooting for Zimmerman’s conviction. Instead, they should recognize that this case doesn’t neatly fit the red-blue divide and that there are many aspects of Zimmerman’s initial exoneration just as troubling as the left’s excesses in its demand for a prosecution.

To be clear, the only person who knows exactly what happened that evening is George Zimmerman—and even his memory may well be colored and corroded by a combination of adrenaline, time, and self-interest. No one has seen all the evidence, but the evidence that does exist hardly screams “hoax.” If conservatives continue to cast their lot with this killer of an unarmed man, they risk damaging their own credibility and further embolden those who would marginalize conservative voices in matters of race, crime, and justice.

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