I think it’s important that George Zimmerman has had a trial.
I don’t know if George Zimmerman is guilty of murder under Florida’s laws or not. That’s partly a subjective determination which can only properly be made by a judge or jury. Martin’s death was not so clear-cut that a cop or prosecutor ought to have decided that Zimmerman should face no consequences. In our system, that decision is, and should be, made in a courtroom.
Given the US’s historic and ongoing racism, I think it’s reasonable to particularly fear such decisions being made by cops or prosecutors in cases where the person killed was a young black boy. It is reasonable to wonder, when a clearly innocent, unarmed, black kid is shot to death and the police decide no charges are needed, if the same decision would have been reached if the body were white.
That all remains true if Zimmerman is found “not guilty,” which strikes me as the most likely outcome (and one I’d probably vote for myself, if I were on the jury). From the progressive, anti-racist point of view, victory doesn’t require a guilty verdict. Even in a hypothetical perfectly non-racist system, injustice would still happen, and sometimes people would get away with murder. This is because our justice system, when it’s working properly, is and should be biased in favor of the
I don’t blame people for being unhappy with Zimmerman being found not guilty (if he is found not guilty), or for correctly seeing it as part of a pattern in which black lives are taken less seriously by our justice system. But I also think that, given the facts of this case, it wouldn’t require racial bias for the jury to find that Zimmerman acted in self-defense.
Russell Simmons writes:
Even with this important day coming soon, I remind myself that we have already accomplished a tremendous amount in the memory of Trayvon. All we ever asked for was for equal justice for the young man who was killed that drizzling night in Sanford, Florida. If George Zimmerman had rights, so did Trayvon Martin. And that is why Mr. Zimmerman was properly arrested and charged with murder in the second degree. He will soon be judged by a jury of his peers, and that is the best we can do.
Victory should not require any particular verdict in this trial. That there was a trial is the victory.
Of course, some people consider it ridiculous that there was a trial at all, or that the jury is being allowed to reach a verdict. Over at Ethics Alarms, Jack writes:
Last week, Judge Debra Nelson, presiding over Zimmerman’s trial, rejected the motion by Zimmerman’s defense team to dismiss the case before a single defense witness had been called, because the prosecution had not met its burden of proof. Media analysts were quick to note that such motions are routine, but this one wasn’t: it was obvious and undeniable that the prosecution’s case could not support a verdict of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A courageous, fair and ethical judge would have dismissed the case: Judge Nelson did not. Judges usually default to the position that we should let the jury decide, but when the evidence won’t support a legitimate guilty verdict, as in this case, that position is irresponsible.
Not for the first time, Jack genuinely can’t imagine that any reasonable person could ever disagree with the right-wing view. This case is not nearly as clear-cut as he suggests.
According to Findlaw:
Florida’s jury instructions (which are based on the Florida statute) spell out three elements that prosecutors must prove to establish second degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt:
- The victim is deceased,
- The victim’s death was caused by the defendant’s criminal act, and
- There was an unlawful killing of the victim “by an act imminently dangerous to another and demonstrating a depraved mind without regard for human life.”
The last element — an “imminently dangerous” act that shows a “depraved mind” — is further defined by Florida’s jury instructions. Three elements must be present:
- A “person of ordinary judgment” would know the act, or series of acts, “is reasonably certain to kill or do serious bodily injury to another”;
- The act is “done from ill will, hatred, spite, or an evil intent”; and
- The act is “of such a nature that the act itself indicates an indifference to human life.”
Note that prosecutors do not have to prove the defendant intended to cause death, Florida’s jury instructions state.
IF the jury is persuaded that Zimmerman, who told the dispatcher “Fucking punks. Those assholes, they always get away,” before disregarding the dispatcher’s request to stay put and chasing after a 17-year-old kid in the dark while carrying a gun, had demonstrated both ill will and committing an act that was very likely to lead to serious bodily injury, they could reasonably find Zimmerman guilty of second degree murder.
The jury could also find Zimmerman guilty of the lesser included offense of manslaughter. Findlaw again:
To establish involuntary manslaughter, the prosecutor must show that the defendant acted with “culpable negligence.” Florida statutes define culpable negligence as a disregard for human life while engaging in wanton or reckless behavior. The state may be able to prove involuntary manslaughter by showing the defendant’s recklessness or lack of care when handling a dangerous instrument or weapon, or while engaging in a range of other activities that could lead to death if performed recklessly.
So to find that Zimmerman committed manslaughter, no finding of spite or ill will is required.
Zimmerman’s strongest argument is that Martin’s death was in self-defense. Although not all witnesses agreed, both Zimmerman’s injuries and the testimony of the closest third party witness support Zimmerman’s testimony that Zimmerman had been punched in the nose, and that Martin was on top of Zimmerman and may have pounded Zimmerman’s head into the ground.
I think someone in that situation could very reasonably fear “death or great bodily harm,” even if he provoked the situation himself through his own idiotic actions. However, from the standard instructions given Florida juries in self-defense cases:
The use of deadly force is not justifiable if you find George Zimmerman initially provoked the use of force against himself, by force or the threat of force, unless:
* The force asserted toward George Zimmerman was so great that he reasonably believed that he was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and had exhausted every reasonable means to escape the danger, other than using deadly force on Trayvon Martin;
So there if the jury believes that Zimmerman “initially provoked the use of force,” AND if they believe that Zimmerman had not “exhausted every reasonable means to escape the danger,” then they could reasonably decide that Zimmerman was not acting in legitimate self-defense.
Honestly, if I was on the jury, I’d probably vote “not guilty.” Someone on the ground, being straddled and beaten, can reasonably be in fear of death or serious injury, and may not believe he has any way out other than his gun. And although much of Zimmerman’s testimony doesn’t seem credible to me, that he was on the ground being straddled and hit by Martin does strike me as credible, given his injuries and the neighbor’s testimony.
But I’m not on the jury. And I don’t think the judge was wrong to think that determination should be made by the jury.
* * *
A couple of random thoughts:
* Ironically, it seems to me that if Zimmerman had died – if in the course of the scuffle Zimmerman’s head had hit the pavement so hard that Zimmerman died of a mortal injury – that Trayvon Martin would have a much stronger case for self-defense than Zimmerman has.
* Although I think Zimmerman may have reasonably been in fear of his life, given how objectively minor his injuries were, that fear was almost certainly mistaken. If Zimmerman hadn’t had a gun, it is overwhelmingly likely that both Zimmerman and Martin would be alive today. Yay guns!
* I actually think that chasing after someone in the dark with a gun, unless there are highly compelling circumstances justifying it, should itself be a crime – even if the gunholder winds up in a situation where he fears for his life. (I don’t find Zimmerman’s story that he didn’t pursue Martin credible, although of course a jury could reasonably disagree with me about that.) The potential for an otherwise nonlethal conflict to escalate into something deadly when idiots like Zimmerman bring a gun into what had been a non-gun situation is obvious, and in my opinion Zimmerman’s actions showed a depraved indifference to that possibility. That should be a crime. But maybe it’s effectively not a crime, under current Florida law.
* I find it disgusting that so much of the discussion of this trial, and the trial itself, (such as admitting evidence that Martin had – gasp! – smoked pot at some point!) has been about disparaging Martin and his friend Rachel Jeantel. In particular, the racist, sexist, classist, and fatphobic attacks on Jeantel have disgusted me. For more on this, read Erikka Yancy, Demetria Lucas, and Mychal Denzel Smith.