On the Zimmerman verdict

Outrage abounds on Twitter, Facebook and everywhere else on the interwebs.  While I understand the frustration, and feel it myself, I think it’s important to understand why this verdict was returned and not attribute it solely to a combination of racism, guns and Florida “rednecks.”

First, some facts [and by facts, I mean facts] about the incident that took place on the night of February 26, 2012:

  • George Zimmerman was armed
  • Trayvon Martin was unarmed
  • Zimmerman called the police when he spotted Martin
  • Zimmerman was told by police they did not need him to follow Martin, which he disregarded
  • There was a fight between Zimmerman and Martin; witnesses had conflicting accounts of who was on top of the other
  • Zimmerman sustained some injuries, including a broken nose and cuts on the back of his head
  • Martin was fatally shot by Zimmerman

Some assertions:

  • Zimmerman often acted as a vigilante and called the police about other black strangers he came across in his neighborhood, according to the prosecution
  • Zimmerman often acted as neighborhood watch to look out for himself and his neighbors in reaction to recent reported burglaries, thefts and attempted break-ins in his gated community, according to the defense
  • Zimmerman pursued Martin and initiated the attack, according to the prosecution
  • Zimmerman only got out of his car to give a precise address to the police and was then jumped by Martin, according to the defense
  • Zimmerman’s injuries were minor, according to the prosecution
  • Zimmerman’s injuries were severe, according to the defense

Some facts about the trial:

  • Zimmerman’s lawyers elected to pursue a trial by jury arguing self-defense rather than a court ruling that would have been permitted under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law
  • Florida Statute 913.10, which concerns the number of jurors, states: “Twelve persons shall constitute a jury to try all capital cases, and six persons shall constitute a jury to try all other criminal cases.”
  • The six jurors had to reach a unanimous decision of whether or not Zimmerman was guilty of second degree murder or manslaughter under Florida law

An armed man killed an unarmed teenage boy.  Many of us are so convinced of Zimmerman’s guilt, the “not guilty” verdict is unfathomable.  However, most of us are not experts in any type of law — federal, constitutional, criminal, let alone Florida self-defense.  We find Zimmerman guilty of killing Martin, which is beyond dispute.  He is guilty of killing Martin in the same literal sense as I am guilty of finishing the last of this lentil soup.  It is true that Martin would almost certainly still be alive today had Zimmerman just remained in his car and awaited police rather than pursuing Martin on his own.  But that does not necessarily make him guilty of second degree murder or manslaughter in Florida.

No one but Zimmerman knows how he felt during the fight and whether or not he genuinely feared for his life.  We can point to the fact that he was armed and Martin was unarmed and therefore should not have feared for his life even if, as Zimmerman claims, Martin jumped him.  But there is no way to know the truth.  Zimmerman could generally be alarmed by teenagers [I am rather leery of teenagers regardless of race or gender, particularly after being harassed on the street myself, having friends who have been assaulted and mugged, and reading about a man who was sitting on a bench not far from where my sister lives in a quiet town, minding his own business, being beaten to death].  Zimmerman could have been racially profiling Martin.  He could have just made a series of terrible decisions.  He could have been looking for a fight.   We do not know and will probably never know what exactly his motivations were for pursuing Martin.

Because of that, I am less inclined to focus on race than on the elements of the law that made this verdict possible.  Most states have some zany statutes on their books that may have sounded good in theory and were drafted and passed with good intentions, but can have some unforeseen applications [see also: Three Strikes laws].  If this verdict spurs a national debate, which looks likely, perhaps it will pressure Florida and other state legislators to revisit murky self-defense and gun laws and onerous mandatory minimum sentencing laws and seriously attempt to modify or repeal them.

More reading:

The Zimmerman Jury Can Judge His Fate Much Better Than YouThe Atlantic Wire

Analysis: George Zimmerman Probably Won’t Be Convicted of Murder or Manslaughter — Here’s Why – ABC News

On the Killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman – Ta Nehisi-Coates, The Atlantic

Legal Insights on the Zimmerman Verdict – Wall Street Journal Law Blog

Florida’s Self-Defense, Gun and 10-20-Life LawsSlate.com

Misjudgment and Overreaction Killed Trayvon Martin.  Now They’re Driving Our Response to the Verdict – Slate.com

George Zimmerman and the Power of Bias – Megan McArdle, Bloomberg


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