After I heard that the special prosecutor in the Trayvon Martin case intended to charge George Zimmerman, I was glad; not because I enjoy it when people get charged with crimes. I don’t. I think our criminal justice system is a broken mess that is both cruel and ineffective; and whatever punishment George Zimmerman may deserve for the reckless killing of a young Black boy, no human being deserves the inevitable suffering and cruelty that will be visited on George Zimmerman if and when he becomes incarcerated. I am not a religious man, but if you find wisdom in Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, I cannot but beg you to reflect upon the catechisms of human dignity, and discover the face of Christ in every prisoner. Yes, even Zimmerman.
The outrage over Zimmerman was never (for me) about whether Zimmerman himself was a fundamentally evil person. I don’t believe that’s true about anybody. The outrage was over the fact that, if Zimmerman had been Black, he would’ve been in jail awaiting trial. It was the racially biased scales of justice that invoked my outrage. I was not angry at Zimmerman per se, but the way in which the case was handled by the authorities; which was a disturbing repeat of the way crimes involving Black victims are regularly treated in cities across America: cavalierly, nonchalantly, and with a casualness that borders on condescension and contempt.
When I heard that George Zimmerman turned himself in, I was gladder still. Finally, the wheels of justice would begin to work. If Zimmerman is found guilty, some folks may feel that justice was served. If Zimmerman is found innocent, at least we can say that it was the decision of a handful of members of the community being unable to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the crimes he was charged with; and not because of an institutionally racist criminal justice system that does not value the lives of Black people (especially young Black men) equally with those of other races. Juries have many flaws; but when the uphold their oath, and acquit defendants where the burden of proof has not been met, that’s good for all of us. It would be a grievous mistake if Zimmerman was convicted on criminally insufficient evidence of the crimes he’s been charged with.
And this last part is where the problem lies. Shortly after it became apparent that Zimmerman would be charged, problems began to emerge: First, it was announced that Zimmerman would be charged with Second Degree Murder. I was immediately dismayed by this for two reasons: a) I don’t think Zimmerman was out to kill Trayvon Martin that night. I think that he was extremely reckless; but I don’t think he was out to kill Trayvon Martin. Understand that, from a legal standpoint, Recklessness is not Intent. Recklessness is most easily described as a more profound form of negligence. That means that Zimmerman should have been charged with negligent homicide, i.e. Manslaughter. Not murder. More importantly, b) Homicide cases are fairly straight-forward in terms of meeting the burden of proof. Generally speaking, the more serious the charge, the more difficult it is to prove the defendant guilty. And I don’t think there’s enough evidence here to prove that Zimmerman had the intent necessary for him to be found guilty of Second Degree Murder in Florida. He may have had that intent in fact; but the prosecutor’s don’t have the evidence to prove it.
This leads me to the second problem: when the charging instrument (the prosecutor’s affidavit) was released, my suspicions were by in large, confirmed. The affidavit itself has been criticized and panned by legal observers as both factually inadequate and legally insufficient; in other words, the facts contained in the affidavit may not be sufficient to meet all the prima facie elements for a charge of Second Degree Murder in Florida. That means that Zimmerman’s legal counsel has a good shot at getting the charges dismissed before the case even goes to trial. In other words, the prosecutor in Zimmerman’s case is making the same mistake that prosecutors made in the Casey Anthony trial: they have overcharged the defendant, possibly for political reasons (i.e. to avoid criticism from the victim’s family and supporters who may feel that a lesser charge doesn’t properly reflect the severity of the crime). As a result, it is extremely likely that the defendant will be acquitted, because the evidence as it stands just isn’t robust enough to support a murder charge. Zimmerman’s case is, in my view, a textbook example of negligent homicide. It is not, however, Second Degree Murder. Not in any way that the evidence can prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
A third issue that cannot be forgotten is Florida’ controversial Stand Your Ground law. This law has tripled the number of justifiable homicides since going into effect, which is a fancy way of saying that a lot of defendants charged with various forms of homicide have been acquitted with the help of this law. Perhaps some of those defendants deserved to be acquitted. Perhaps not. The point is this: whether you like this law or not, the fact remains that it is the law, and it is generally applied in a defendant-friendly fashion. This law will almost certainly operate in Zimmerman’s favor at trial, unless the judge makes a ruling that it doesn’t apply to Zimmerman, which I think is unlikely based on the weakness of the affidavit. The prosecutors in Zimmerman’s case should have taken this into account, and sought a lesser charge (e.g. negligent homicide) that would have been easier to prove, both in the charging affidavit and at trial.
What you can take away from this is that, once again, a prosecutor has overcharged a defendant, most likely to avoid being criticized by the victim’s family and supporters. As a result, Zimmerman will probably be acquitted is the case goes to trial (assuming he gets an honest jury).
This is another example, by the way, of how the retributive impulse is counterproductive to achieving actual justice. It was good that people pressured the Sanford authorities to pursue criminal investigation and charges against Zimmerman. It was bad when that pressure transformed into a criminal charge that the facts don’t necessarily support. It may very well happen that a jury still finds Zimmerman guilty of Second Degree Murder at trial. As the Troy Davis case amply demonstrated, plenty of defendants have been found guilty on sparse evidence. But an honest jury will, in all likelihood, be unable to find Zimmerman guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of Second Degree Murder. Manslaughter? Much more likely. But not murder. The evidence that the prosecutor is working with just isn’t robust enough to support the kind of intent necessary to secure what Zimmerman’s been charged with.
With all that being said, there’s always a change that the jury may surprise us; there’s also a possibility that the prosecutor has additional evidence that the public hasn’t been acquainted with. But with the evidence as we know it, I think an honest jury will have to acquit Zimmerman of Second Degree Murder. Purely as a matter of law, he’s been overcharged, and there’s not enough evidence to prove each of the elements of the crime he’s been charged with beyond a reasonable doubt.