5 Questions About George Zimmerman’s (Appropriate) Acquittal

Police photo of George Zimmerman after the shooting

1.  Did the prosecution prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that George Zimmerman was not acting in self-defense when he pulled the trigger?

This actually was the only question the jury needed to decide.  If the answer is no, then racial profiling, Florida’s stand-your-ground law and all the rest are irrelevant.  As law professor and legal über-blogger Eugene Volokh writes, “once the defense introduces any evidence of possible self-defense, the prosecution must disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.” If the jury concludes that the prosecution has failed to meet this test — and given Zimmerman’s injuries and the testimony that Trayvon Martin was on top,  they could not honorably have reached any other conclusion — then murder and manslaughter are both off the table.

2.  So was Zimmerman blameless in Martin’s death? 

Gracious, no.  He disregarded the dispatcher’s (regrettably understated) instruction not to follow Martin, and he sure as hell should never have gotten out of his car.  If Zimmerman had not been playing wannabe cop, Trayvon Martin would be alive today.  But as William Saletan said in a thoughtful and well-researched Slate article, Zimmerman’s actions “make him a reckless fool instead of a murderer.”

3.  If Zimmerman was at fault, shouldn’t he be punished?

In our legal system, a defendant can be convicted only of the specific charges leveled against him or her.  Zimmerman was charged, ludicrously, with second-degree murder, and manslaughter is a lesser included charge.  I wonder if Zimmerman could have been charged with reckless endangerment, or impersonating a police officer, or some such.  If self-defense gets Zimmerman acquitted for pulling the trigger, maybe he could have been convicted of a much-lesser crime for his actions before pulling the trigger.

4.  Will the U.S. Justice Department bring civil rights or hate-crime charges against Zimmerman?

Unfortunately, that’s the way to bet, given that race-obsessed Attorney General Eric Holder runs a thoroughly politicized Justice Department.  The evidence supporting self-defense will be just as strong the second time around, but there’s no telling what a jury might do.  But Zimmerman can take some hope from a CNN article about Holder’s statements in the aftermath of the shooting last year:

“For a federal hate crime, we have to prove the highest standard in the law,” Holder said in April 2012, 45 days after Zimmerman shot the African American teenager in what was depicted by civil rights groups as a racially motivated killing.

In words that now sound prescient, Holder described to reporters that day how “something that was reckless, that was negligent does not meet that standard.”

5.  How has President Obama behaved in this saga?

Once again, as in the arrest of Professor Gates, Obama irresponsibly inserted himself into a racially charged local legal issue.  His statement that “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” could have had the effect of tainting the jury pool and making it harder for Zimmerman to get a fair trial.  To the credit of the jurors, they withstood all of the pressures, acknowledged the reasonable doubt and reached the verdict demanded by that doubt.  To Obama’s credit, his statement after the acquittal was better: “We are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.”

(Public domain police photo via Wikipedia)


9 thoughts on “5 Questions About George Zimmerman’s (Appropriate) Acquittal

  1. The best opinion I heard on this was that the prosecution failed to develop a theory of the case, and the defense did, and the verdict was probably the correct one based on the presentations of the evidence against the charges applied for.

    I enjoy and am grateful that Obama inserted himself into what is a national discussion, because he is a unique character in regard to race and he may have saved lives in the process.

    I don’t recognize the vitriol against Holder, but the model for a politicized Justice is Bush/Gonzalez firing US Attorneys, requiring them to be conservative Republicans.

    In sum, I would imagine the case to be better presented as a guy with a gun, ignored the dispatcher and pursued a kid going home and whatever happened next was under “the kid defending himself”.

    Unfortunately, Stand Your Ground makes reckless gun use and pursuit legal. And the other facts would probably support the defendant, and I don’t care about them personally because the situation was only enabled by the previous facts.

  2. Dano, Volokh and others have argued that Stand Your Ground wasn’t relevant to the case. In the blog post I cited (I left out the link, it’s there now), Volokh says in 49 of 50 states (except Ohio) the burden is on the prosecution to disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.

    • Right, Kirk, Stand Your Ground wasn’t cited in the case but it’s very relevant for a different reason. The legal standard for self-defense in the use of a gun, used to include features like you had to retreat if possible, you were absolutely responsible for any discharge that wasn’t in response to a threat to your life, etc. The SYG law by giving justifiction for not backing off essentially gave Zimmerman a legal justification to pursue someone with a gun. Holder intelligently said yesterday that “SYG incites violence” and is pursuing options.

      • Dan, I think it may very well be appropriate to adjust the laws in some way so that it would be illegal for a non-police officer to pursue or confront a suspect in a non-emergency situation. It may make sense to adjust the self-defense laws to create an exception for a person who initiates a confrontation. (Or who initiates violence — Zimmerman apparently initiated the confrontation by pursuing and getting out of his car, but we don’t know who initiated the violent contact.)

        I certainly don’t want to encourage future George Zimmermans — he did a very stupid thing, and a young man is dead as a result. My main point in all of this is that under the law as it stands now — not just in Florida, but in most states — the jury reached the only verdict they could reasonably reach, because there was credible evidence of self-defense.

  3. You have a stronger stomach than I do to write about this case, Kirk. The majority of what you’ve written is sensible to me and given the outcome I am somewhat relieved to consider a more acceptable way to view the verdict than as a complete injustice.

    I would note and question:

    -Eric Holder is “race-obsessed”
    -Obama “irresponsibly inserted himself into a racially charged issue”

    Let’s say those points are debatable, but noted. Why did you not mention race at all in your accounting of your number 2 “So was Zimmerman blameless…?” Q and A? Would you really object to adding to that, “Zimmerman reacted to seeing this young black man in his condo development with an assumption that he was a suspicious character who should be followed and was engaging in racial profiling in doing so (which turned out to be baseless with regard to Trayvon’s reason for being there).

    Given that race cannot be set aside in this whole tragic set of events, the fact that you assign racial motivations to Holder and Obama but not Zimmerman seems a selective omission.

    • Priscilla, the incident itself may or may not have been racially motivated — I don’t think it’s clear-cut, and I didn’t mention it because I don’t think race is relevant to the issue of whether it was self-defense. But the aftermath of the incident certainly has been racially charged.

      • Sorry to “drive by post”, Kirk-

        Specifically, it was for your list of ways in which Zimmerman was not blameless in #2 above that I suggested the issue of race should at least be raised, not whether it was germane to self-defense, agree it is not there. You did list off a number of ways in which Zimmerman erred that night and I would pose that this was another one. Why do you think Zimmerman followed him then? Even Zimmerman, unless I missed something, never said Martin was looking in people’s windows or doing something that was an *action* that suggested criminal behavior, only that he looked suspicious, so why was that?

        FWIW I agree or at least don’t disagree (never bothered to read enough trial detail to be really informed on the law) with you that the jury probably made the right decision on the “self-defense” defense. I just think it’s a bad law with an unacceptably low burden of proof that you felt threatened as justification for killing someone.

        • Priscilla, I don’t know what was in George Zimmerman’s heart when he first focused on Trayvon Martin. The transcript of the 911 call indicates he didn’t say anything about race until the dispatcher specifically asked him about race. I’ve read somewhere that Zimmerman voted for Obama, but I can’t find that statement attributed to Zimmerman.

          When Zimmerman pulled the trigger, it was more than just that he “felt threatened.” He was being beaten in a fight. Zimmerman had head injuries, and there was testimony that Martin had him pinned to the ground and was pummeling him.

          It’s a frustrating case — Zimmerman acted irresponsibly, and a young man died as a result. But he can’t be convicted of being irresponsible — he can only be convicted of a specific crime, and he’s presumed innocent until proven guilty. He had adequate defenses against the charges that were brought. If Zimmerman had been charged also with, say reckless endangerment, perhaps there could have been a conviction (I don’t know enough about the legal components of that offense. But the prosecution overreached.

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