Monday, July 15, 2013

Making Sense of the Zimmerman Verdict

Photo: Seminole County Sheriff's Office
A Florida jury has acquitted George Zimmerman in relation to the shooting death of 17-year-old African American Trayvon Martin. Whether Zimmerman killed Martin was never in doubt, but what happened immediately before the death was, and still is.

The February 26, 2012 shooting, and the six-week delay in Zimmerman’s arrest, incited outrage across the nation, about both racial profiling and gun laws. By the time of Saturday's verdict, though, gun control and Florida's "stand your ground" self-defense doctrine had taken a backseat to the case's dominant theme: race relations in the United States.

Lost in the furor over the verdict is the law, law that can be difficult for even lawyers and judges to apply to a given set of facts.

Second Degree Murder

The principal charge against Zimmerman was second degree murder, which required the jury to determine whether he acted with "a depraved mind without regard for human life." Put another way, did he act with "ill will," "spite," or "hatred"? What that means in practical terms is deciding whether Zimmerman intentionally killed Martin without premeditation, or by acting in a way not designed to kill, but reasonably certain to kill or seriously harm him. Zimmerman would have done this if, for example, he spontaneously shot Martin without justification.


Prosecutors requested and received from the judge a fallback crime for the jury to consider. Manslaughter, which can be either voluntary or involuntary, requires a finding that the defendant killed the victim without justification. 

Voluntary manslaughter occurs when someone kills under mitigating circumstances. A text-book example is a husband who comes home to discover his wife in the throes of an affair with another man; enraged, the husband kills the wife's paramour. In the Zimmerman trial, a voluntary manslaughter verdict might have occurred had Martin provoked Zimmerman into a fight and Zimmerman not needed the gun to defend himself. The killing would not have been justified, but extenuated by the emotional confrontation.

Involuntary manslaughter involves a reckless but unintentional killing. Mere negligence—which would be enough for a civil verdict against Zimmerman in a lawsuit for Martin's death—isn't enough for involuntary manslaughter. (Read about Zimmerman’s potential civil liability here.) Zimmerman needed to be grossly careless to be guilty of involuntary manslaughter. A conviction of this crime would have been appropriate if, for instance, he hadn’t intended to kill Martin, but had recklessly waived his gun around and accidentally discharged it. (For more information about murder and manslaughter generally, read here.)


The jury also had the choice of acquitting Zimmerman on a self-defense theory. But the jurors didn’t even need to conclude that he acted in self-defense in order to acquit him. Rather, because Zimmerman presented enough evidence to raise the possibility of self-defense, they only had to find that the prosecution didn't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he did not act in self-defense. 

Zimmerman would have acted in self-defense had Martin been the aggressor and Zimmerman used reasonable force to protect himself. The “stand your ground doctrine,” Florida’s enhanced self-defense statute, didn’t ultimately factor into the defense. Under that law a person under serious threat need not retreat, even if it’s safe to do so, and can meet force with force. (Learn more "stand your ground" here.)

Zimmerman’s lawyers relied not on “stand your ground,” but traditional self-defense. They argued that their client had no option to retreat, and that his use of force was reasonable under the circumstances. Zimmerman told police officers that Martin knocked him to the ground, punched him, and slammed his head into the pavement over and over again. Afraid for his life, he reached for his gun and fired.

At least as of now, with the anonymous jurors deciding not to discuss the case, we don't know whether they believed Zimmerman's version of events or one similar to it. But they didn't need to believe him word for word in order to acquit. As long as there was a moderate possibility that he acted in self-defense, the law required that they acquit him.

What All This Means

With all the public angst over this case, it's crucial to understand what the Zimmerman verdict does not mean. It doesn't mean that Zimmerman didn't racially profile Trayvon Martin. It doesn't mean that, all in all, he acted reasonably the night of February 26, 2012. Nor does it mean that he isn't culpable in Martin's death, or that he shouldn't be held responsible for it in a civil court. 

The verdict merely allows for the possibility that Zimmerman, racist at worst and misguided at best, created a situation in which he might have reasonably felt he needed to shoot Martin. Without any of us having been there, and without anyone other than Zimmerman and Martin having seen what actually happened, I don't know how we can find fault with that possibility.

With this country's past—and present—of racial injustice, treating the Zimmerman verdict as a symbol of all that's wrong is irresistibly tempting. But racial profiling can be prevalent, our legal system can systematically mistreat African Americans, and, under our limited knowledge of the facts, a not guilty verdict in the Zimmerman case can be reasonable.