After the acquittal of George Zimmerman in his trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman walked out of the courtroom a free man having been found “not guilty.”  However, he did not walk away as an innocent man.
In October 1995 a California jury found former football star O.J. Simpson “not guilty” of double murder. The verdict prompted significant outrage among white people who generally proclaimed the “not guilty” verdict did not establish Simpson’s innocence. That same sentiment has been expressed by many African-Americans about the George Zimmerman “not guilty” verdict.
These public reactions in high-profile murder cases invite the question: what is the difference between a “not guilty” verdict and a finding of “actual innocence.”
First, a not guilty verdict means the prosecution did not produce sufficient evidence to prove a charged offense beyond a reasonable doubt while “actual innocence” is generally an evidentiary finding made following conviction—most often based on “newly discovered evidence”—that a defendant was wrongfully convicted.
Second, even in “guilty” verdict cases, a review is often conducted on direct appeal to determine if the prosecution presented sufficient legal and factual evidence to sustain the conviction. The difference between the two standards is that an assessment of legally sufficient requires the appellate court to review all the evidence presented at trial in a light most favorable to the verdict to determine if a “rational jury” could have found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of all the essential elements of the charged offense.  Under this standard, the reviewing court does not reevaluate either the weight or credibility of the evidence presented at trial; its review is confined to whether the jury reached a “rational decision.”
A factual sufficiency review, on the other, is conducted in a “neutral light” and a conviction will be set aside only if the evidence is so weak that the guilty verdict is “clearly wrong,” “manifestly unjust,” and/or the “contrary evidence” is so strong that the reasonable doubt burden could not have been met. Under this standard, the reviewing court will defer to the jury’s determination of what “weight” to give conflicting trial testimony; in other words, conflicting testimony between prosecution and defense witnesses.
Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court has carved out a strict, narrow review of “actual innocence” claims which requires not only a “showing that a reasonable doubt exists in the light of the new evidence [which supports innocence] but also that no reasonable juror would have found the defendant guilty [had he/she known about the new evidence].” Further, the newly discovered evidence that supports innocence must be tied to a constitutional violation which, alone, renders a conviction a “miscarriage of justice.” These are difficult, even impossible legal hurdles to surmount.
All things considered, it is clear that “not guilty” does not mean “innocence.” That’s why the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines permit a district court to consider a prior acquittal by reason of insanity as an “aggravating circumstance” warranting an enhanced sentence. Such acquittals speak of the past conduct and character of a defendant. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982 said that an acquittal by reason of insanity establishes two facts: the defendant committed an act that is a criminal offense and he committed the act because of mental illness. The criminal act alone constitutes “dangerousness,” spoke the court. For that reason, “past un-convicted conduct” can be used against the defendant in the sentencing process.
George Zimmerman committed a criminal act: he killed Trayvon Martin. The only issue before the jury was whether he was, under the circumstances, justified in doing so. The jury, for different reasons, found he was justified. So, at the end of the day, Zimmerman walked out the courtroom un-convicted. He did not walk out an innocent man. Trayvon Martin died by Zimmerman’s hand under highly suspicious and contested circumstances. He can never say he was “innocent” (that he didn’t do it); he can only say he was not convicted for it. 
We remain convinced that the jury made the correct decision, given the evidence submitted by the prosecution.  Having represented individuals charges with similar crimes where self-defense was an issue, we can say that, legally, George Zimmerman was not guilty of criminal conduct.  However, this case will remain a prime example of a “perfect storm” of unfortunate events that led to a real world tragedy.  Mr. Zimmerman must feel the same.