For Trayvon Martin And America, Justice Hinges on Two Words: “Prosecutorial Discretion”

As the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death calls the country to examine the racial inequities of the criminal justice system, the conversation must go beyond the impulse to only focus on the man who took his life, George Zimmerman, and the police who let him walk out of their station. If we are to have any meaningful impact on how the system really works, we have to go where the real power lies – with the prosecutors, the ones who control the levers of the system in counties and states across the country.

In Martin’s case, it was prosecutor Norm Wolfinger who decided that Zimmerman should be not charged or detained that fateful evening. That moment of choice by Wolfinger is the most revealing part of the Trayvon Martin tragedy in terms of the vulnerabilities of the criminal justice system. Wolfinger was not acting as a rogue decision-maker circumventing the rules of law enforcement – he was exercising “prosecutorial discretion” – the awesome legal authority given to prosecutors to decide if an act is a matter, or not, for the criminal justice system to consider. Continue reading