Not Guilty Verdict Fans Discontent Over Disparity in Justice System
Our adversarial system of justice sometimes works. The George Zimmerman demonstrates as much. Prosecutors for the State of Florida and criminal defense attorneys for Zimmerman had a judicial forum, closely monitored by a judge, to present their theories of the truth. A six person jury sat through two weeks of evidence and testimony before reaching a verdict (after approximately sixteen hours of deliberations) that Zimmerman was “not guilty” of any criminal wrongdoing for his February 26, 2012 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.
That is the way our justice system works. Regardless of one’s view about the verdict, it was reached by six citizens of the community in which the charged offense occurred. Supporters of Trayvon Martin demanded a trial, a public forum in which their perspective of the truth could be presented openly and fairly. They received that opportunity with the zealous prosecution offered by the district attorney’s office. Supporters of George Zimmerman were extended the same opportunity: a public forum in which to present their defense against the criminal allegations against the 28-year-old “neighborhood watch” volunteer, who shot the unarmed youth in very questionable circumstances.
We have our feelings about the verdict. Like many others, our feelings are mixed. Like many legal experts have observed, we believe prosecutors for the Florida’s State Attorney’s office overreached when they sought, and secured, a second degree murder charge against Zimmerman. Charles H. Rose, a professor at Stetson University College of Law, told the Los Angeles Times that: “The prosecutors made a tactical error by charging this as second-degree murder. Their theory was that was that George Zimmerman picked out this young black kid and set out to do him harm. But at the trial, it became clear it didn’t happen that way.” We agree. Prosecutors often overcharge cases and sometimes, when the facts don’t meet the jurors’ expectation, this works to their disadvantage.
Our second problem with the prosecution is this: prosecutors engaged in too many theatrics in the presentation of their case. Their opening statement was laced with profanity used by Zimmerman during his infamous “911 call” on the night of the shooting. They followed that crude performance with a promise they would show beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman engaged in “imminently dangerous conduct” with a “depraved mind” when he killed Martin. In other words, he engaged the teenager with a specific intent to kill him for no good reason. It became abundantly clear about halfway through the prosecution’s case that they had promised something to the jury they knew they could not prove: a specific intent to kill prior to Zimmerman’s confrontation with Martin. Juries do not like to be misled. And they do not like to be screamed at as they were by lead prosecutor Bernie de le Rionda during his closing argument. Jurors want what Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday would often say: “Just the facts, ma’am.” When a prosecutor resorts to screams, shouts, demands to make his/her case, it becomes obvious that they do not have a sound case and resorting to emotional pleas to cover for that reality often turns juries off.
The prosecution should have charged Zimmerman with manslaughter, an offense with a lower threshold of proof. It carries a penalty of up to 30 years, and sentencing experts said under Florida’s sentencing guidelines, Zimmerman would have faced a minimum sentence of 10 years upon conviction. Florida’s manslaughter statute would have required that prosecutors prove only that Zimmerman committed an “intentional act” that was not excusable or justified when he killed young Martin. It became clear to jurors in the middle of the trial that the prosecution had changed its theory of the case from second degree murder to manslaughter because it could not carry the “depraved mind” burden required in second-degree murder cases. At that point, we surmise, jurors lost confidence in the State’s case: if you promise milk but deliver cheese, you’ve lost credibility with the jurors.
At the end of the day here is the way we see the Zimmerman case. First, Trayvon Martin had a right to walk down the street that night with his Skittles and ice tea. He had a right to look and act like a “young black man,” hoodie and all. As a matter of fact, he had a right to look and act like a young punk criminal thug, if he wanted to adopt that demeanor. It makes no difference if he was or had “smoked marijuana” that night or any other night. He posed no threat to anyone, and particularly not to George Zimmerman.
Second, with respect to George Zimmerman, he had a right to be a “wannabe cop” on neighborhood watch patrol. He had a right to get out of his vehicle despite suggestions from the 911 operator that he not do so. He had a right to observe and even follow Martin because, as he told the 911 operator, “these young assholes always get away” (a paraphrase). He had a right to prejudge and profile, just as many successful law enforcement officers do on a daily basis, and just as many Martin supporters have done to Zimmerman. We may not like it, but it is his right.
There’s an old adage that says: “your freedom ends where my nose begins.” We believe Trayvon Martin most likely took the first swing in the in the conceded altercation, and we believe he had every right to do so. He didn’t have any stolen property on him (a stolen laptop under his arm or a duffle bag filled with electronics slung over his shoulder); he had not violated any law as Zimmerman presumed or exhibited any inclination to do so; and he certainly did not pose a physical threat to Zimmerman or anyone else in that neighborhood.
Some would say Martin “overreacted” to Zimmerman’s “police like” interest in him. We disagree. Martin had a right to walk down the street in peace, in a cell phone conversation with a girlfriend, and with a First Amendment expectation of privacy. Neither his behavior nor his appearance warranted the uninvited intrusion into his public space by an angry “citizen on crime watch patrol.” Zimmerman’s defense focused on the premise that after he stuck his nose where it didn’t belong in a highly-charged confrontational manner and was smacked in the face because of it, he had a self-defense right to kill a 17-year-old kid.
“Stand your ground” does not mean standing on someone else’s ground. Martin had claimed his public right to stand his ground on the sidewalk. Zimmerman didn’t like, much less respect, that right. He claimed all the public ground, sidewalks and streets included, as the domain of his neighborhood security patrol. A “stand your ground” defense does not bestow a right on anyone to be rude, offensive, and intrusive on someone else’s ground.
And that’s exactly what happened here. Martin was not the aggressor. He did not confront Zimmerman while the community patrolman sat in his vehicle. The teenager simply met aggression with aggression on a public sidewalk. He did not have to wait for Zimmerman to either try to stop him or take the first swing. As far as Martin knew, Zimmerman could have been a mugger or a pedophile, not a citizen cop as he claimed to be.
After all was said and done in the courtroom, we are left with this observation: Zimmerman initiated the confrontation and Martin responded to it. And even accepting that Martin should not have taken the first swing, we still believe Zimmerman should have disengaged from the physical altercation. He was much bigger in physical size than Martin—and after being the first aggressor (without any justifiable reason), he had both a legal and moral obligation to retreat; to step away from the confrontation he had created. There is no reason to believe Martin would have pursued him, tackled him, and try to kill him. “Stand your ground” was sold to voters as the right to defend against aggression; not a right to initiate aggression and kill the response to that aggression. But, from a technical perspective, under Florida’s “stand your ground” self defense statute, like many others around the country, if Zimmerman believed he was acting to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm, he had every legal right to stand his ground and to use deadly force. Like it or not, this is the law.
Still, at the end of the trial, we believe the “not guilty” verdict was the only correct verdict in the case. The prosecution did not meet its burden of proof on any of the elements of either second degree murder or the lesser charge of manslaughter. The jury did its job and the jurors should be commended for their service. The defense attorneys must also be commended. They made the most of what the prosecution served up to them—like prosecution witnesses who supported the defense’s theory of the case more than they did the prosecution’s.
An innocent kid is dead. His parents must now cope with the cancer of grief. Zimmerman’s life is ruined. While his parents are now joyous over the outcome of the case, their family’s life will also forever be changed.
The only winner at the end of the day is our trial by jury system of justice. That despite protests to the contrary, made a difficult but correct legal decision in the matter.
Was Zimmerman morally correct in killing this young man? No. Are the protests over issues of racial disparity in the criminal justice system justified? Yes. Should he be civilly liable for the wrongful death of Trayvon Martin? Perhaps. But, was he criminally responsible for the murder of Mr. Martin? We think not.