Four Truths the Zimmerman Jury Ignored
In the prosecution’s last remarks to the six-woman jury of the George Zimmerman trial, assistant state attorney John Guy delivered a famous quote from Voltaire: “To the living we owe respect, and to the dead we owe the truth.”
Of course, the living also deserve the truth, especially the family and friends of the dead teenager in this case, Trayvon Martin. They and a good many Americans are trying to come to terms with a distressing disconnect between the truth and the not guilty verdict the jurors delivered. They can place some of the blame in Florida’s wild and reckless laws governing self-defense.
It’s not like the prosecution hadn’t backed up John Guy’s poetic plea with a lot of substance. At a news conference after the verdict, Angela Corey, the Jacksonville state attorney who presided over the prosecution, reaffirmed, “We believe that we brought out the truth on behalf of Trayvon Martin.” It’s just that the jurors would not, or could not, see enough of it in the weirdly fragmented versions of reality they consumed inside the courtroom.
Part of the truth that came out is that -- in the real world -- the then 28-year-old Zimmerman set in motion the series of events that led to Martin’s death on a Sunday evening in February 2012. Obviously, if Zimmerman had stayed home or gone to church, he never would have shot Martin.
The fact that Zimmerman initiated the series of events is an important point in Florida law, because it allowed state prosecutors to define Zimmerman as an aggressor. As far Florida’s Justifiable Use of Force statute is concerned, it wouldn’t have mattered whether a sense of civic duty, a zealous belief that he was acting out “God’s plan,” a desire to be a hero in a community tired of burglaries, or hatred-fueled suspicion based on bigoted perception motivated Zimmerman. What matters is that the shooter “initially provokes the use of force against himself,” the law states.
“What it really boiled down to was a kid minding his own business being followed by a stranger. And so I would submit, that’s when it started,” lead prosecutor Bernie De la Rionda said at the post-verdict news conference. “What it boils down to is that you have a 17-year-old kid, who was minding his own business, wearing a hoodie, and gets accosted, gets followed by an individual who wants to be a cop.”
A second crucial truth was that while trailing Martin, the neighborhood crime watch coordinator characterized the youth in a 911 call as a “fucking punk” who was “up to no good.” He also stereotyped him as one of the “assholes” who’d been burglarizing the area and “always get away.” That allowed prosecutors to further establish that Zimmerman was an aggressor, one who was acting with spite, ill-will, or hatred -- essentials of a second-degree murder charge.
Aided by Florida’s Justifiable Use of Force statute, Zimmerman’s lawyers, Mark O’Mara and Don West, succeeded in getting jurors to focus narrowly on just one event in the series, a physical struggle between Martin and Zimmerman that no observer saw fully and clearly. Then they got jurors to focus on an even narrower dimension of this nebulously reconstructed event: Zimmerman’s state of mind in the moment just before he pulled the trigger.
Prosecutors had also put forth a third important truth regarding the defense’s depiction that Martin had punched Zimmerman, flattened him on his back, pinned him to the ground, and bashed his head against the sidewalk. “We don’t believe that he [Zimmerman] could have been straddled and had the gun on that inside back holster and gotten it out, if he was truly being beaten at the time the shot was fired,” Corey said.
Yet another truth the state attorneys managed to disseminate in the courtroom was this one: that whatever happened in that encounter, Zimmerman didn’t suffer “great bodily harm,” as the Justifiable Use of Force law terms it. “We did not believe that...the statements...made by George Zimmerman comported with injuries of great bodily harm,” State Attorney Corey emphasized. “Children across this country, athletes, get injuries just like that and go right back into the game. Or their parents kiss them after they’ve fallen off of their bike, and they go right back in.”
And yet, Florida’s Justifiable Use of Force statute doesn’t require that we actually be receiving injuries. It merely requires us to have a “reasonable fear” that we are in “imminent peril of death or great bodily harm.”
Talk about an epistemological nightmare and a recipe for unwarranted shootings of people we believe to be suspicious. In the absence of corroborating testimony by more than one clear, up-close eyewitness (other than Zimmerman there were none in this case), how could jurors ever be free of reasonable doubt about Zimmerman’s thought process as he pulled the trigger? Is it even knowable under the circumstances?
It’s pretty reasonable to believe that Florida’s Justifiable Use of Force law -- and this conundrum at the heart of it -- empowered Zimmerman to be able to kill an unarmed black teenager on a snack run on in his dad’s townhouse community. And do it with impunity.
It’s also reasonable to believe that while civil lawsuits against Zimmerman could produce new truths they won’t likely convince Republican leaders in Tallahassee to change the law such that Zimmerman might have thought twice about trailing Martin and let the Sanford cops do their job.
Other truths have come out of Florida v. Zimmerman that the prosecution isn’t claiming credit for.
One of them is that black teenagers in Florida really must think twice about wearing hoodies and walking alone in public areas where they have a right to be but might run into unfriendly, armed strangers.
Another, graver, truth is that post-Zimmerman there is also now a certain rationale for black teenagers to carry guns into those types of public places.
And what if Trayvon Martin had packed heat that evening, felt threatened enough to “reasonably believe” he needed deadly force to prevent his own death or bodily harm, and shot Zimmerman? Presumably, our Justifiable Use of Force law would have let him get away with it, too.
But would the same women of the Zimmerman jury have allowed Trayvon Martin to walk? There is a lot of evidence to create doubts about that.
Kirk Nielsen is a writer based in Miami.
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