By now, the problems that besieged the Trayvon Martin criminal case are well-known. The police mishandled existing evidence, and failed to collect the rest. They didn't make much of an effort to identify Trayvon before sending his body off to the morgue. At least one officer laughed while questioning the 7-11 clerk who rang up his purchase. When George Zimmerman was finally prosecuted, the prosecution probably overcharged, failed to prepare witnesses, and generally ran a terrible trial. Ultimately, a jury of six, who believed that "race did not play a role," acquitted Zimmerman of the charges.
All of this played out in a very public way, and many now see the case as a stark example of the law failing to provide justice. But months before the acquittal, deep in the shadows of the private law, the law offered Trayvon Martin's family a small consolation. Back in April, the homeowners association of the housing community where Trayvon was killed reached a settlement with his parents. Although the amount has not been publicly disclosed, wide-spread speculation suggests that it was for over $1m.
The media reported on the settlement when it occurred, but it registered as barely a blip in the coverage of the case then, and still forms almost no part of the larger conversation surrounding the trial. One article announcing the settlement opened with the phrase, "sometimes justice is meted out in stages," but the settlement hasn't resonated in this way at all. It is not just because the third-party settlement is on the periphery of the criminal trial: other legal activities happening on its fringes (like the possibility of a federal civil rights trial, or a civil suit against Zimmerman) receive much more attention, and seem to have the potential to change the narrative of the case and offer something resembling justice. In contrast, this third-party settlement has had next to no effect on the narrative of the case in general, and has done very little to assuage the sense of injustice that many feel. Why has this settlement failed to have any meaning in the narrative surrounding justice for Trayvon?
At least two features of the settlement are likely preventing it from being understood as a form of justice here. First, the settlement is private in every sense of the word. It doesn't feel meaningful to the public because we simply don't know enough about it. As is typical with private law settlements, its terms are confidential. We know that there was no admission of liability, and that payment was made in "consideration for avoiding litigation, the uncertainties stemming from litigation as well as to protect and secure the good name and good will of the released parties." We have very little additional information. It's not even clear who is actually on the hook to pay the monies: the only known insurers, Travelers Casualty and Surety Co. of America, issued a statement indicating that they were "not a party to the settlement," and that it "would have been with other insurers of the homeowners association and/or the property managers."
It's also unclear what role the association played in the circumstances leading to Trayvon's death, or what the basis for liability may have been. This is the second problematic feature: without these facts, whatever the association did or didn't do as the third-party feels quite removed from the primary wrong. The feeling is that Zimmerman should be held to account, and an association with a possibly minor role in the shooting is a poor substitute.
However, as suggested by the growing body of litigation against third-parties who facilitate or fail to prevent crimes, third-parties can play significant roles in criminal happenings. In this instance, the homeowners association could have "failed to properly train and/or supervise" Zimmerman. It may have endorsed and encouraged Zimmerman to function as a de facto police officer instead of a mere neighborhood watch participant. And the association may have expressed approval of following "suspicious" persons in the past.
When one thinks about how the association could have contributed to the circumstances that led to Trayvon's death, it becomes apparent that third-parties could also be an important site for positive future change. Some homeowners association websites have written about the settlement, and offered guidelines on how associations can discourage vigilantism. So although this kind of settlement is obviously not perfect justice, and compensation does not have nearly the expressive power of a criminal verdict, the settlement may impact the conduct of other associations, and help prevent a similar tragedy from happening in the future.