Trayvon Martin was an African-American. He was walking home from the 7-11. George Zimmerman thought he posed a threat, and he ended up shooting him dead. Zimmerman claims he shot Martin in self-defense. He was acquitted of both second-degree murder and manslaughter charges. At best, this was a tragedy in which one man used unnecessary force to defend himself. At worst, the verdict was a miscarriage of justice in the face of murder.
Robert Ethan Saylor had Down syndrome. He had just finished watching Zero Dark Thirty. He wanted to see it again without paying for a second movie ticket. When he tried to reenter the theater without paying, the theater personnel called in three security officers who were not in uniform. In the process of wrestling Ethan to the floor and handcuffing him, he struggled, cried out for help, and died on the floor, of suffocation. The autopsy report states his cause of death as “homicide resulting from asphyxia.” No one has been formally accused of any wrongdoing. Saylor’s family and the public have been denied access to the details of the investigation. Again, at best, this was a tragedy in which three men used unnecessary force. At worst, the silence from the sheriff’s office indicates their unwillingness to address a murder.
Both situations involve the tragic death of a young man who had done nothing to provoke or deserve such a fate. Both situations also involve individuals who represent larger populations of people who have been oppressed for many years. Although the results remain in dispute, I am glad that Martin’s death became a matter for the public record. For months, this trial and the issues of race and justice it provokes have not only been a matter for a court of law but also a topic of public debate. Whether or not the Justice Department decides to pursue the issue as a potential civil rights violation, people of all races have had an opportunity to consider the continued fraught relationship between ethnic groups within our nation.Not so with Ethan Saylor. Writers for the Washington Post have kept the story in the news, but it has not received widespread national attention. Again, the officers involved in Saylor’s death were never charged. The details of the investigation remain closed to the public and even to Saylor’s family.
Trayvon Martin’s family is not satisfied with the results of the trial. They will never be compensated for the loss they have suffered. But they have had access to information about his death, and their son’s life has sparked a national conversation about race that might just lead to positive change.
I can only hope that the legal system and the media will give Ethan Saylor’s family the same attention, the same access to what happened the night he died, and the same opportunity for us to have a conversation about how to treat individuals with Down syndrome with respect and compassion rather than brute force.
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***Update: Just this week, details of the investigation have been released, which include the information that Saylor’s aide warned police that he would “freak out” if they tried to touch him. To read more, click here.