As a former criminal defense attorney, a staunch advocate for civil rights, and a teacher of the American legal system, I have decidedly mixed feelings about the not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial.
On the one hand, I firmly support the jury’s verdict, believing, to the extent I knew of the evidence presented at the trial, that he could not be found, beyond a reasonable doubt, to have been criminally responsible for the death of Trayvon Martin. But as a civil rights advocate, I am wholly sympathetic to the feelings of outrage that are now prevalent. And as a law professor, I understand that the system worked in this case as it is intended to work, even as the result seems unsatisfactory.
So let’s review how I can have so many mixed and ambivalent feelings.
The verdict of not guilty of second degree murder was most definitely correct as to the evidence presented at the trial. As I wrote last week (before the jury had reached its verdict), “having produced evidence . . . that Martin was beating up Zimmerman, the burden shifts to the prosecution to establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Zimmerman was not reacting to that kind of a beating. That burden is too great to overcome in this trial.”
A guilty verdict on the lesser included manslaughter charge was also doubtful, based on the lack of any clear evidence that Zimmerman acted irresponsibly once he and Martin confronted each other. Again, the prosecution’s burden is to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman was criminally negligent, and that burden wasn’t met to the satisfaction of the jury in this case, a judgment with which I agree, based on the evidence presented to it.
So justice was served, right? Yes, if our focus is solely on the actual trial and the charges of which Zimmerman was accused. Under our system, with the constitutional protections provided to a criminally accused, Zimmerman was properly acquitted of the homicide charges.
But on a grander scale, a strong argument exists that justice was thwarted not so much in the trial itself, but in the legal rules and social mores that led to Martin’s death. Trayvon Martin shouldn’t have been killed on that night, an injustice that the criminal trial of George Zimmerman could not address. But the laws in play in Florida and the social mores existent in that community and throughout large parts of the country did lead, in part at least, to that injustice.
As to the law, the “stand your ground” doctrine may well have emboldened Zimmerman to stalk Martin in the first place. (I use the word “stalk” because he was told very clearly not to follow Martin when he called 911 in the first place. That he did anyway is akin to stalking; if you have a more descriptive word, substitute it.)
Zimmerman was clearly aware of “stand your ground” as he referred to it when he was first questioned by the police that night. If Florida had not had such a law, would Zimmerman, armed with his trusty gun, have pursued Martin as he did? Moreover, if Florida had a gun-control law that prohibited Zimmerman from carrying a gun, would he have followed Martin, let alone killed him?
So the laws in play in Florida clearly had a hand in Martin’s death. And let’s remember, this was a young man who was doing nothing wrong.
But what about the social mores that exist in that part of our country? Would Zimmerman have been following Martin if Martin had been a young white kid who wasn’t wearing a hoodie and who didn’t look like a “punk”?
Zimmerman may not be a racist. Race may not have even been the reason he chose to follow Martin so intently (even after being instructed not to), but the reality is that something compelled him to follow his victim, and that something more than likely has to do with the way young black men are stereotyped by elements of our society.
Consider for a moment what it must be like to be a young black male in parts of the country where George Zimmerman types perform vigilante service. Are you free from fear of being wrongly accused or suspected just because of your appearance? Do you feel free to dress as you like and to otherwise express yourself as you desire? If you are honest or just empathize with young black men and boys, you must admit that the answer to those questions is a resounding “no.” Instead, you are always at risk of being pre-judged unfairly just because of the “profile” that fits you.
So, does that mean justice wasn’t served? The answer to that question depends on how you define justice, and that takes me to the third of the reasons that I am at sixes and sevens about the resolution of this case.
As a lawyer and a teacher of the law to future attorneys, I am committed to the rule of law that our legal system is built around. Respect for the legal system is essential if the ordered society that we espouse to have in our country is to be preserved.
But no attorney would claim that the system we have is perfect. In fact, democracy itself, even the democratic-republic version of it that we have, is badly flawed in many respects. The Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case was flawed from the outset. The initial police investigation (for whatever reason) was far too casual and accepting of the killer’s description of the events. The preparation by the prosecution in bringing the case to trial was shoddy at best, incompetent at worst. The selection of the jury (without any African-American representation) was an unfortunate turn of events that hardly ensured that the victim’s interests would be recognized.
All of these aspects of the case allowed the sense to grow that justice was not served in the acquittal of Zimmerman. But maybe the injustice was that a 17-year old who should still be alive isn’t. Maybe the real search for justice has to go beyond a criminal trial. Because, in the end, no defendant can be convicted absent proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s what I teach, that’s what the system requires, and that’s what happened in this case.
Trayvon Martin should still be alive. That’s the injustice. But George Zimmerman isn’t criminally responsible for his death. That’s the just, albeit incongruous, result.