Courts

George Zimmerman's Acquittal: Four Blunt Observations


George Zimmerman is found not guilty at Seminole County Criminal Justice Center in Sanford, Fla., on July 13

Photograph by Pool/Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/MCT via Getty Images

George Zimmerman is found not guilty at Seminole County Criminal Justice Center in Sanford, Fla., on July 13

1. George Zimmerman was at fault for killing Trayvon Martin.
Ignore the pious post-verdict declarations by Zimmerman’s (skilled) defense lawyers. The police dispatcher told Zimmerman to stay in his car. If the wannabe cop had followed reasonable instructions and/or had decent training as a neighborhood watchman, he would have remained in his vehicle. Zimmerman deserves heavy blame.

2. The “system” sometimes works in mysterious ways.
The American justice system bends to public opinion, politics, institutional bias, and sometimes even flat-out corruption. In this case, prosecutors came under understandable public pressure to punish Zimmerman for his foolhardy behavior. The prosecutors brought severe criminal charges and put forward the best case they could. Still, the ambiguity surrounding the last minutes of Martin’s life left plenty of room for reasonable doubt. The jury could have convicted on manslaughter but made a plausible choice not to. The defense lawyers brayed afterward about Zimmerman suffering grave injustice. Baloney. He endured 16 months of intense suspicion and court supervision. He’ll never escape the moral legacy of a needless killing. Sounds like rough justice to me.

3. The next step should be a private wrongful-death suit, not a federal civil rights prosecution.
Civil rights activists are calling for the U.S. Justice Department to prosecute Zimmerman for violating Martin’s civil rights. While one can sympathize with the demand, especially in the emotional aftermath of the state-court acquittal, federal civil rights charges would require the government to prove that Zimmerman is an old-fashioned racist. That would not be easy to do. NAACP President Ben Jealous has compared Zimmerman’s acquittal to one six decades ago of two white men accused of kidnapping and murdering black Mississippi teenager Emmett Till. But that kind of hyperbole won’t hold up in court. Zimmerman’s defense would again be able to engender reasonable doubt, leading to more heartache. Much better to give Martin’s parents an opportunity to prove by the much lower civil legal standard (“preponderance of the evidence”) that Zimmerman acted irresponsibly. A wrongful-death action might lead to the best possible outcome: a swift settlement, including some kind of money payment to compensate the victim’s family and a public apology from Zimmerman.

4. Liberal gun-control advocates are already overplaying their hand.
“Murder has now been legalized in half the states,” proclaimed Ladd Everitt, spokesman for the Washington (D.C.)-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. This loopy statement echoes many less-extreme attempts to associate Zimmerman’s defense with Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law. That statute eliminates the traditional obligation to retreat in the face of life-threatening violence. Such statutes may be problematic (personally, I think they are), but the Zimmerman case isn’t a good example to make the argument against stand your ground. In fact, the defense team waived the opportunity to invoke the statute to preempt the prosecution. Instead, Zimmerman’s lawyers made a more conventional self-defense argument. Their contention was that Zimmerman never had an opportunity to retreat because Martin had him pinned to the ground. Stand your ground just wasn’t relevant to this defense. In the end, what got Zimmerman off was the most basic of all criminal-law concepts: reasonable doubt.

Barrett_190
Barrett is an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. His new book, Law of the Jungle, tells the story of the Chevron oil pollution case in Ecuador.

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