So I finally had a chance to look into the details of the Martin vs. Zimmerman case. It seems to me, after much reading and thought, that the jury reached the correct verdict in acquitting Zimmerman of the charge of second degree murder and manslaughter. Furthermore, I don’t believe it is fair to say that the jury was racist or prejudiced in arriving at their acquittal. There is no evidence that they were, and there is good evidence to support the not-guilty verdict based on the existing laws on the books and the judge’s instructions to them (as to how the laws were to be interpreted and what parts of the law were to be discarded). As such, it is unfair to say that they were motivated by anything other than evidence, laws and their interpretation (through the judge’s instructions).
To be clear, just because I think the jury was correct in acquitting Zimmerman doesn’t mean that I consider Zimmerman to be (morally) innocent; simply, that there was reasonable doubt as to whether he was guilty of second degree murder or manslaughter per the laws on the books and per the judges’ instructions. Zimmerman, the person, does seem to be a creepy wannabe failed policeman, and it does seem somewhat plausible to assume that he pursued Martin because of his prejudice about what a “suspicious” person looks like, which seems to have “precipitated” the confrontation that ended up costing Martin his life. As such, the intuition rebels against the notion that such a person who behaved in this fashion and that ended up killing an innocent 17 year old who was originally minding his own business could be left unpunished by the legal system. As sympathetic as I am to this intuition, the laws on the books and the judge’s instructions make for a strong case in acquitting Zimmerman. As such, it makes you think about the laws more than anything (and I’m not talking about Stand Your Ground, which I believe is irrelevant to this case, as discussed below).
Finally, I know this case has inflamed passions on both sides, so I know that by virtue of arriving at any conclusion, some people are going to be upset, regardless of how well reasoned your case is. Having said that, I’m obviously no legal expert, so if you disagree with my reasoning, I’m glad to entertain counter-arguments with whomever objects.
With that as a preface, let’s start by examining Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense, which was used to get an acquittal. The defense argued that at the moment right before lethal force was used, Zimmerman was on his back being pounded into the cement by Martin, and given that he reasonably believed that he faced great bodily harm or the threat of death, he was justified in shooting Martin in self-defense.
So then the question is this: was Zimmerman truly in a situation where he was facing grievous bodily harm or death at the time lethal force was used? Now, we’ll never know what exactly happened that night, but the prosecution had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman was not in a situation at the time lethal force was used where he reasonably believed that grievous bodily harm or death could result, for a guilty verdict of second degree murder or manslaughter to be upheld. Given that the forensic evidence and eye/ear witness accounts seemed to support Zimmerman’s version of the story, the prosecution’s case was next to impossible: clearly there was reasonable doubt.
Interestingly, the defense never used the Stand Your Ground clause, and it was never brought up by the prosecution during the trial either.The reason why Stand Your Ground wasn’t invoked was because the defense argued that he had no option to flee when he was (supposedly) on his back with Martin on top pounding him. As such, given that they argued that there was no option to flee at the time the deadly force was used, the Stand Your Ground provision is irrelevant. Even in “Duty To Flee” states, if retreat is not an option, you are justified, in self-defense, to use deadly force if you reasonably believe that you are facing great bodily harm or death. To show this, take a look at the relevant language after the Stand Your Ground Law was enacted in Florida in 2005:
“In deciding whether George Zimmerman was justified in the use of deadly force, you must judge him by the circumstances by which he was surrounded at the time the force was used. The danger facing George Zimmerman need not have been actual; however, to justify the use of deadly force, the appearance of danger must have been so real that a reasonably cautious and prudent person under the same circumstances would have believed that the danger could be avoided only through the use of that force. Based upon appearances, George Zimmerman must have actually believed that the danger was real.
If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”
And the language before the law was enacted:
“In deciding whether defendant was justified in the use of force likely to cause death or great bodily harm, you must judge him by the circumstances by which he was surrounded at the time the force was used. The danger facing the defendant need not have been actual; however, to justify the use of force likely to cause death or great bodily harm, the appearance of danger must have been so real that a reasonably cautious and prudent person under the same circumstances would have believed that the danger could be avoided only through the use of that force. Based upon appearances, the defendant must have actually believed that the danger was real.
The defendant cannot justify the use of force likely to cause death or great bodily harm unless he used every reasonable means within his power and consistent with his own safety to avoid the danger before resorting to that force. The fact that the defendant was wrongfully attacked cannot justify his use of force likely to cause death or great bodily harm if by retreating he could have avoided the need to use that force. However, if the defendant was placed in a position of imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and it would have increased his own danger to retreat, then his use of force likely to cause death or great bodily harm was justifiable.”
Clearly then, if retreat was not an option as the defense argued, then we arrive at the same conclusion whether “Stand Your Ground” or “Duty to Flee” clauses are at play. To counter this, the prosecution, under a hypothetical “Duty to Flee” scenario, would have had to show beyond reasonable doubt that Zimmerman could have retreated at the time lethal force was used. Again, given that the forensic and eye/ear witness accounts seem to corroborate Zimmerman’s story that he was pinned underneath Martin and that he was being pounded from up top, it’s next to impossible to make the case beyond reasonable doubt that he could have fled (see here and here).
Furthermore, to preempt some of the commonly made objections that Stand Your Ground did indeed play a role in the verdict (contra what I said above), I will state that yes, it was in the judges’ instructions, and that yes, juror B-37 did mention Stand Your Ground in the Anderson Cooper interview.
But just because it was in the instructions doesn’t mean it was relevant to the case; to wit, the Castle Doctrine was also in the judges’ instructions, and clearly had nothing to do with the case as the crime scene happened outside of anyone’s house. Furthermore, regarding juror B-37, it seems that his invocation of Stand Your Ground and his description of it and his reasoning are at odds, as the seems to be describing plain old self-defense.
So far, I have avoided focusing on the fact that Zimmerman stalked Martin because he thought he was suspicious, or that his pursuit of him “provoked” the confrontation that ensued (given that you have a creepy male trailing you in a car, and then on foot, in the middle of a rainy night). Could one not argue that since Zimmerman provoked the confrontation, surely he could not invoke “self-defense”? As it turns out, Florida does have a clause in the law that would prevent the aggressor (the one that “started it”) from claiming self-defense if lethal force was used against someone.
The problem, however, is 3-fold:
1) It is not clear how “aggressor” is defined. It seems to be commonly interpreted as the use of force or the threat of force against someone else. Given that pursuing someone (even if the police dispatcher says: “we don’t need you to do this”) is not illegal and not necessarily tantamount to using force or the threat of force, I’m not sure that Zimmerman would have been viewed as the aggressor per this clause in the law (even though he clearly “provoked”, in some sense, the ensuing confrontation); see here and here.
2) Even if it could have been hypothetically proven that Zimmerman was the aggressor, the judge dismissed the use of this clause in his instructions to the jurors. As such, the jurors never had a chance to consider this part of the law in the first place.
3) Finally, even if Zimmerman was hypothetically deemed to be the aggressor and the judge had allowed the clause in the instructions, there is an exception to the clause that no deadly force can be used by the aggressor, and that is if the aggressor has no option to retreat and is being subjected to grave bodily harm or death (see 2a in statute 776.041, linked above). As such, we’re back to the notion of proving beyond reasonable doubt that Zimmerman could have actually fled when the use of lethal force occurred (and that he was the aggressor on top of that); quite the difficult task.
In conclusion, this case is the definition of a tragedy. A sequence of events where a 17 year old kid that lost his life in circumstances that did not need to happen because of behavior that could have been avoided, for which there is no real recourse within the law. Not sure how you remedy this in the future.