Thursday, July 18, 2013

An Analysis of George Zimmerman's Not Guilty Verdict

Many were shocked when it was announced that a jury of six women found George Zimmerman not guilty of all charges associated with the death of Trayvon Martin.  However, it must be remembered that the jury had to follow the letter of the law in deciding Zimmerman's fate.  At least one juror has come out publicly and stated that although she believed Zimmerman "got away with murder," that because she had to follow what the law stated, she was duty bound to find Zimmerman not guilty.

To say that Zimmerman "got away with murder" but was not guilty is a confusing statement to make. So what exactly was Zimmerman charged with, and how could the jury find him not guilty? First, the actual letter of the law in Florida, in pertinent parts, is laid out here, so the exact standards by which Zimmerman was being prosecuted can be undersood.

From the very beginning, Zimmerman admitted killing Trayvon.  But Zimmerman claims the killing was in self-defense, or in legal terms was “excusable” or “justified.”  These terms are legal terms of art that mean that a perpetrator will not be punished for an act that on its face is a crime if there is a good legal reason for its commission, such as self-defense or reasonable mistake.  Essentially, a homicide is not a crime if it is justified or excused.  Zimmerman's defense team ultimately declined to invoke the controversial stand your ground Florida law and thus did not seek to gain immunity from prosecution and civil suit.  (Fla. Stat. 776.032).

The DA charged Zimmerman with second degree murder and the lesser included charge of manslaughter. At the close of evidence, the prosecution asked the judge to allow the jurors to consider third degree murder on the basis of child abuse.

The crux of the proof necessary for the charge of second degree murder (punishable up to life in prison), boils down to the commission of an "imminently dangerous" act "evincing a depraved mind regardless of human life."  Premeditation is not necessary.  Under Florida law, in order to prove that Zimmerman had a "depraved mind" the prosecution had to present evidence that he acted with "ill will, hatred, spite or evil intent."  See Leasure v. State, 105 So. 2d 5 (Fla. App. 2012).

In order to prove manslaughter (punishable up to 15 years in prison), the prosecution had to present evidence that Zimmerman committed an intentional act that caused Trayvon's death.  See Haygood v. State, 109 So. 2d. 735 (Fla. 2013).  But if there is evidence for a legally sufficient excuse or justification, no crime was committed.  Loosely speaking, the crux here is whether Zimmerman honestly and reasonably feared for his life at the time he pulled the trigger; in other words, whether Zimmerman's actions were reasonable given the circumstances. In deliberating, the jurors have to engage in Monday night quarterbacking.

The evidence that was presented in this case makes it a close call.  There was certainly enough evidence to put Zimmerman on trial for the death of Trayvon, but the jury had a tough job.  In my opinion, the most important result of this case is opening the national dialogue about the assumptions that are routinely and all too often unjustifiably made about young black men in general.

At the end of the day, whether Zimmerman committed a crime under Florida law was a close call. Perhaps the prosecutors didn't present their case well enough, perhaps the police did not gather enough evidence, or perhaps the jurors were not well-instructed on the law. I do believe it was a mistake for the prosecution to argue Zimmerman was a vigilante, purposefully acting as judge, juror and executioner.  Either way, whether the evidence was enough to convict was ultimately up to the jury.


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