A jury of six women found George Zimmerman not guilty of the second-degree murder and manslaughter 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
The result is not surprising. The state had little evidence to support a manslaughter conviction and nothing to support a second-degree murder conviction. The only direct evidence the jury had to go on was Zimmerman’s, and while it is self-serving, the state could not come up with anything to specifically contradict it beyond a reasonable doubt.
I would love to blame this all on racism, but I think the problem lies with the prosecutors. They simply did not put on a strong case. They failed to address several problems with Zimmerman’s story, from the placement of the gun on Zimmerman’s hip to Zimmerman putting his gun away despite claiming he did not know whether Martin was shot, let alone alive or dead. Some points they addressed in their closing, yet quite often they allowed those points to hang in the air, perhaps hoping the jury would connect the dots for them.
The prosecutors failed to use Zimmerman’s own statements against him. For example, Zimmerman claimed that Martin approached him and asked, “What’s your problem?” Zimmerman claims he said, “I don’t have a problem.” After that, he claims that he reached into his right pocket to get his cell phone, which is incidentally on the same side that he keeps his gun, and at that point Martin said, “You’ve got a problem now” and punched him.
Why did the prosecutors not argue that Zimmerman’s gesture was threatening and therefore Martin had a legal right to punch Zimmerman in the face? It was dark. Martin had no idea what Zimmerman was reaching for. Zimmerman also admitted that he never stated who he was or gave his name.
They failed to bring up Zimmerman’s past behavior. Zimmerman has a history of violent behavior, including against an officer and his ex-fiance. How did that not get in? More curiously, the prosecutors fought to get Zimmerman’s prior 911 calls in. In all those calls, Zimmerman only reported young black men as suspects. Yet the state made no mentio of race in their case in chief, and denied that the case was about race in their closing.
Their failure to address that extended to cross-examination. When the defense put on a white woman whose home was burglarized by several young black men, the state never asked her if Martin was the one who broke into her home. They left untouched the implication that it was completely reasonable for Zimmerman to suspect Martin because he was black like those criminals.
But most importantly, they failed to present their version of what happened. That, more than anything, astounded me. How could the state, the people with the burden of proof, fail to state what they think happened? Even in their closing arguments, the state made no effort to weave a narrative. They asked questions, offered no answers, left it to the jury, and they got the verdict they deserved. They did not prove their case. I do not know if that was because they did not have evidence to support their version of the story or if they honestly believed that they could just say, “There was a 17-year-old kid minding his own business who was killed by a wanna-be cop.”
That said, I do not doubt that the prosecutors who handled the case believe that Zimmerman killed Martin out of hatred and malice. The passion they showed in court is hard to fake. I simply do not understand why they did not channel that passion into a clearer argument.
While this may be it for Zimmerman criminally, it is not over for him. He can be and has been sued for the unlawful death of Trayvon Martin. The burden of proof in civil court is just a preponderance of the evidence, and unlike in a criminal court, Zimmerman must take the stand. He also faces potential federal violation of civil rights charges, and again, the burden of proof is simply a preponderance of the evidence. There is more than enough evidence to support those suits, and I think Zimmerman will end up literally paying for killing Trayvon Martin.
As for how people move past this, I think this case unfortunately speaks volumes about we as a country think about young black men’s lives. Had the roles been reversed, even with the weak presentation, I think the state would have won. Again, while I think the bulk of the problem lies with the state’s case, I have no doubt race played a role in this decision.
As a country, we need can do better than this. That is not to say that Zimmerman ought to have been found guilty just because of the race issue. However, it does mean that we need to rethink the way we think about self-defense, gun laws, and how we treat young black men.