…AND JUSTICE FOR ALL
An Analysis of the State of Florida vs. George Zimmerman Case
Note: Given the extensive media exposure that the George Zimmerman/ Trayvon Martin case has been given, this article assumes that the reader has a basic knowledge of the case.
On July 13th, 2013, a man who had shot an unarmed African-American teenager was acquitted of all charges of manslaughter and murder.
The verdict sent shockwaves through American society and raised certain fundamental questions about the American justice and social systems. As the blowback over the verdict of the case led towards protests and violent riots across the country, Americans of white as well as minority descent struggled with the same question: Is race still a critical issue in the American societal landscape?
Given what we know about the case, it is hardly surprising that these thought processes would come to light. This should have been an open-and-shut case for the prosecution. It seemed as if all the evidence fit for the prosecution: at 7:13 PM George Zimmerman called a non-emergency response number to notify authorities of a suspicious man walking through the neighborhood. While on the call, Zimmerman started to follow Trayvon despite the responder on the other end of the line telling him that “he didn’t need to do that.” At 7:17 PM, the cops showed up after the incident was reported. Trayvon Martin was dead.
The pieces of the puzzle seem to add up toward an obvious conviction. But there was one critical piece of information missing from the case that was necessary to corroborate an honest conviction; this final piece of the puzzle was intent. At first glance, the intent seems obvious. George Zimmerman racially profiled Trayvon Martin and then decided that since the boy was of African- American descent, he might have been up to something illegal. From that point onward, State of Florida vs. George Zimmerman became a civil rights issue to the public rather than a simple homicide case. But the fact of the matter is that race never should have been an issue in this case. The parameters of the killing led to the mutation of thought processes involving the murder but race never should have been the central issue. When looking at the case objectively, the acquittal wasn’t simply the right verdict to come to. It was the verdict the jury should have come to, regardless of the racial implications.
To prove intent, the prosecution had to prove that Zimmerman was racist and thus used Trayvon’s race to profile him. But Zimmerman has a history of looking past race for social justice. In 2011, Zimmerman was part of a citizen forum at Sanford City Hall where he protested the beating of a homeless black man by the son of a local police officer. Such behavior, as he stated, was “disgusting” as he provided personal anecdotes that corroborated the apparent laziness and ineffectiveness of some Sanford police officers. He was a registered Democrat who supported Obama’s campaign. At the time of the shooting, Zimmerman was finishing up his Associate Degree in Criminal Justice. A professor of Zimmerman’s testified in Zimmerman’s trial, stating that Zimmerman earned an “A” grade in his criminal litigation class and understood criminal law and procedure in the case of self-defense. It comes down to this basic question: If Zimmerman was racist, where is his record to show it?
This brings us to the issue of reasonable doubt. Reasonable doubt is a fairly complex legal concept; this is because entire idea of reasonable doubt is laid in ambiguity and subjectivity. If we were to visualize reasonable doubt, it would look a little like this:
Reasonable doubt is the assertion in a legal context that, given the circumstantial and solid evidence in a case, the only logical explanation for a process is the explanation provided by the prosecution. It forces the jury to look at the circumstantial evidence and ascertain its credibility. The very concept of reasonable doubt involves subjectivity since the juror is forced to look at the evidence provided in all its forms and use personal heuristics to determine whether the evidence is admissible for a prosecution. Theoretically, this is an extremely low threshold for the prosecution to meet in order to successfully to convict someone. By failing to prove the racial intent of Zimmerman, the prosecution was ultimately not able to justify a case of murder. The charge of voluntary manslaughter itself is hard to navigate in states like Florida where the “Stand Your Ground” clause in defense law is present; after all, the juror is forced to evaluate whether there is a difference between homicides by intent to harm others and homicides with intent to defend one’s self.
The slight variations between the laws in “Stand Your Ground” and voluntary manslaughter contexts leading to the ultimate acquittal are not examples of institutional racism; instead, they examples that policy at the state and federal levels need to be reevaluated in terms of how charges are different and similar.
Race should have been a non-issue in this case. The American constitution itself states explicitly that a man is innocent until proven guilty; the basic crux of this argument in the constitution is that a man should be given the benefit of the doubt in the American legal system. The assertion that the legal system has failed due to the acquittal of George Zimmerman couldn’t be further from the truth; in fact, it worked exactly how it was supposed to. An all-female jury acquitting a man of murder despite the media hype and sensationalism centered on the racial aspects of the case proves that yes, the system works. The burden of doubt was not provided by the prosecution. This case was handled objectively because sufficient evidence was not provided to prove that George Zimmerman did, in fact, have intent to kill or racially profile Trayvon Martin, he was acquitted. That is how the system is supposed to work. Set aside your personal objections over the validity of the “Stand Your Ground” clause and you have a system that is intended to work exactly as it is supposed to.
This isn’t to say that racism does not exist in our society or even that it is not present within the legal system. Gibor Basri, professor of astrophysics and Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion at the University of California, Berkeley, related his personal encounter with racism in Florida on the Berkeley Blog subsequent to the Zimmerman ruling. In his blog, he recounted the story of a time when he was pulled over by local residents by Delray Beach and asked to leave the community even though he was simply sitting in his car talking to his wife. Soon the police were called.
In his blog, Basri struggled with the implications of that situation. It was a few months after the Trayvon Martin shooting, and naturally the concepts of societal and institutional racism sprung to his mind. “Now I’m supposed to swallow the proposition that if they had opened my car door in a threatening manner, and I knocked one of them to the pavement, that they should be free to shoot me dead without legal sanction,” he considers in his blog. “In retrospect the possibility of conflict was real enough.”
Basri is completely right. The conflict was real enough. A re-evaluation, at least, of the “Stand Your Ground” clause and its implications on legal conclusions is necessary. The gross disparity between the interpretations of the “Stand Your Ground” clause in the cases of Marissa Alexander and George Zimmerman should stand as grounds enough to reconsider the law. The legal system did not fail; the interpretation of policy did. The sooner we come to accept this reality as a nation, the sooner we can move beyond the racial implications of the “Stand Your Ground” law and move progressively towards positive change in the American legal system.
This post was written by Sridutt Nimmagadda