Here’s the lesson from the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case: What is lawful is not necessarily just. The family and friends of Martin learned that bitter lesson Saturday night when George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter in the death of the 17-year-old.
It is not necessary to argue with the jury’s unanimous verdict. Enough legal experts have concluded that the state didn’t prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, and that requires acquittal.
Still, this is what happened. Martin, an African-American wearing a hoodie, was walking unarmed through a gated community. Zimmerman, a wannabe cop and neighborhood watch leader, was armed and steaming mad that Martin was on his turf. Police instructed him not to confront Martin, but he ignored them and did it anyway. When it was over, Martin was dead. That is somebody’s fault, and how could it be that of the unarmed victim?
Whether the shooting was an accident, a product of rage or Zimmerman reacting to Martin’s response to an aggressor, the armed man who chased down Martin is alive, the teenager is dead and, as a matter of law, Zimmerman is not responsible. Something is wrong. Even while legally innocent, Zimmerman is morally responsible for Martin’s death.
Although Zimmerman never specifically invoked Florida’s reckless “stand your ground” law in his defense, the measure played a large role in the case. Before the jury began its deliberations, the judge instructed the jury on that law, which sanctions deadly force if the shooter fears for his life and safety and is in a place where he is entitled to be. Police didn’t even arrest Zimmerman until almost two months after the shooting, because under Florida’s law, someone who claims self-defense cannot be charged unless police produce evidence to the contrary.
A detailed analysis of nearly 200 stand your ground cases last year by the St. Petersburg Times found that people who killed a black person walked free 73 percent of the time, while those who killed a white person went free 59 percent of the time.
In other ways, the role of race was muted. The Times analysis found that whites who invoked the law were charged at the same rate as African-Americans. When cases went to trial, whites were convicted at the same rate as African-Americans.
There is no telling how – or even if – those muddled influences played a role in this case. All we know are the facts. Zimmerman, with one white parent and one Hispanic parent, went free after confronting an African-American teenager in a stand-your-ground state. But the case at least calls for a re-evaluation of the terrible law, some version of which is in force in at least 22 states.
It seems likely and just that Zimmerman will face additional legal challenges. Most likely is a civil suit by Martin’s family, as occurred after O.J. Simpson was acquitted of the murders of his ex-wife and her friend. Simpson was found liable in the civil trial, in which he was compelled to testify and for which the burden of proof was lower.
Of greater concern to Zimmerman, but perhaps less likely, would be a federal trial on charges of violating Martin’s civil rights. But that requires proving a racial motive. That motive may or may not exist and would be difficult to prove, based on testimony in the state trial.
In the end, though, Zimmerman deserves no public sympathy. He did precisely what police instructed him not to do, he did it with a gun and a young man died. His fingerprints are all over this crime scene.