Zimmerman's Acquittal: A Race-Neutral Verdict for a Racially-Charged Crime

JURIST Guest Columnist Elizabeth Megale of Savannah Law School examines Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law in the context of the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman...
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In terms of the law, the verdict in State of Florida v. George Zimmerman is legally sound; it is the "correct" verdict of a jury bound by the requirements of the law. Attorneys on both sides committed errors, as one might expect during the course of a trial, but based on the evidence adduced at trial, the jury lawfully acquitted Zimmerman. Importantly, even had the trial been "perfect," the evidence in this case would have required an acquittal under Florida law.

Even so, the verdict has inspired community outrage. To many, it feels like Zimmerman "got away with murder." After all, he killed an unarmed teenage boy. To complicate it even more, that teenager was black. The facts of this case shine a light on the pervasive racism endemic to America, and the resultant outrage surges from the frustration of those who feel like they are in the middle of a crowded room screaming about the problem. Can anyone hear? Does anyone care?

Those angry about the George Zimmerman verdict surely can understand how the law in Florida mandated this result. Florida law has a broad self-defense statute. The law permits me to use deadly force against another person if I subjectively fear that other person will cause me great bodily harm or commit a forcible felony. It doesn't matter if I was wrong. It doesn't even matter whether my reaction was reasonable. It certainly's doesn't matter whether my reaction was based on my racial prejudice. What's more, Florida law makes a negligible exception for first aggressors or cases of retreat. If I start a fight with someone, that person would be entitled to respond against me with force. Once that person's defensive act triggers my fear, I can respond with deadly force too. Even worse, there is no statutorily-recognized shut-off valve to defuse the situation. Florida law condones the use of deadly force against someone who is in the process of retreat. So, even if I decide to abandon the fight and run away, the other person is authorized to chase and kill me out of simple fear.

Due to the underlying facts, many legal scholars might question how Zimmerman was ever charged and why his attorneys did not move to dismiss the case early on. Although Zimmerman might plausibly be characterized as the initial aggressor in this case, there is little question that he, too, suffered great bodily harm (as defined in Florida) based on the injuries to his face and head. Whether we like it or not, under Florida law, these injuries alone evidence a legal basis for reacting with deadly force against Trayvon Martin regardless of who initiated the encounter.

Even assuming the prosecution could have overcome the high burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that George Zimmerman committed second-degree murder, it could hardly disprove that Zimmerman acted in self-defense. As we all know, a prosecutor must prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, and a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Even when a defendant has been proven guilty, though, that defendant may assert an affirmative defense, essentially admitting the prosecutor has met the burden but offering a legally justifiable reason for the actions and seeking acquittal. The defendant is not required to prove the defense beyond a reasonable doubt; rather, there need only be a basic (prima facie) showing of plausibility. In other words, could the facts supporting the affirmative defense be true? If so, the burden shifts to the prosecution to disprove the theory of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. Otherwise, Florida law requires the jury to acquit the defendant. Based on the physical and photographic evidence of injury, this burden would have been insurmountable for the prosecutors in the Zimmerman case.

From a physical evidence perspective, the prosecution's case was impossible from the beginning. Even if the state could establish evidence of first degree murder, Zimmerman's physical injuries were consistent with his theory of self-defense, and the prosecution had no way of disproving his theory beyond a reasonable doubt. So, in a sense, the Zimmerman trial actually represents a victory for the criminal justice system in that the jury, rather than being swayed by emotions, evaluated the facts and evidence under Florida law to make a legally sound decision. We may not like it, but that is what Florida law requires.

As a reflection of society, though, the Zimmerman verdict reveals a tragic image of a country still deeply marred by racial tensions. The requirements of the law are incongruous with our expectations in a case like this. By any standard, the death of a seventeen-year-old boy is tragic. Under some versions of the events, it appears Zimmerman profiled Trayvon Martin and engaged in aggressive behaviors likely to produce the shooting that ultimately occurred. To many on the outside looking in, it seems like Trayvon was shot because he was a black teenager walking in a suburban neighborhood. In a society that calls itself "free," how is it possible that a young man could be shot because of the color of his skin or the clothes he was wearing?

The fact is George Zimmerman made a deadly assumption about Trayvon Martin. He categorized him as someone who did not belong in Zimmerman's suburban neighborhood. He lumped Trayvon in with the "unknowns" who had been committing crimes in that neighborhood, and Zimmerman did not want to let him get away "again." Never mind that Trayvon did nothing wrong. Never mind that Zimmerman had no idea who had committed the crimes in the past. As Trayvon walked down the street, Zimmerman plugged Trayvon into the category of "criminal," and all the assumptions that go along with that category affected every action from that moment forward.

Would there have been a different result if Florida had a duty to retreat? Almost certainly, and in several potential ways. First, a "duty to retreat" statute normally deters confrontations, whereas "stand your ground laws embolden aggressive tendencies. If Zimmerman had been bound by a duty to retreat, he might have heeded the 911 operator's instructions to avoid an encounter with Trayvon. Second, Zimmerman would have had a much more difficult time establishing that he acted in self-defense because he would not have been justified in approaching Trayvon or initially engaging in the scuffle. Rather, he would have been required to retreat to safety in the face of a potential threat. Note that prior to being pinned underneath Trayvon, Zimmerman had other opportunities to safely retreat. So, the duty to retreat would have required both Trayvon and Zimmerman to walk away. Third, if Florida recognized that primary aggressors may not claim self-defense absent evidence of an attempt to retreat, Zimmerman would not have been able to claim self-defense at all. These are just three ways justice might have been served differently in this case.

At their core, Florida's self-defense statutes permit individuals to label others, categorizing them as different. Florida law encourages people to rely on preconceived notions to fill in the gaps about who these "others" really are. These laws give us a license to let our imaginations run wild with prejudice, and therefore to kill anyone who might trigger a fear within us (rational or not). The tragedy of Trayvon's death is much larger than George Zimmerman and any personal prejudice he might have had.

Florida's "Stand Your Ground" laws not only encourage individuals to respond violently when in fear, whether real or imagined, they also endorse prejudice and bias. These laws rationalize irrational prejudices and biases by permitting individuals to "shoot first and ask questions later." We cannot expect to overcome prejudice and racism at an individual level until our laws no longer condone the xenophobic categorization of people based on their race. Only then can meaningful strides be made toward deconstructing entrenched categories of hate related to racism and prejudice and reconstructing new ones rooted in the recognition of individuality.

Elizabeth Megale is an Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Legal Skills and Professionalism Program at Savannah Law School in Savannah, GA. Her teaching responsibilities include Legal Writing, Research, and Advocacy; Advanced Appellate Advocacy, Pre-Trial Practice and Procedure, and Transactional Drafting. Prior to teaching, she practiced as a public defender and criminal defense attorney in Florida.

Suggested citation:Elizabeth Megale, Zimmerman's Acquittal: A Race-Neutral Verdict for a Racially-Charged Crime, JURIST - Forum, July 19, 2013, http://jurist.org/forum/2013/07/elizabeth-megale-zimmerman-acquittal.php


This article was prepared for publication by Alex Ferraro, the Section Head of JURIST's academic commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at academiccommentary@jurist.org

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