zimmermantrayon-martin-picture1Below is a slightly expanded version of today’s column in USA Today on the Zimmerman verdict. As I wrote before the case was sent to the jury, I saw no alternative to acquittal even on manslaughter and expected the jury to render a full acquittal. I respect the conflicting views of many on this blog on the case and how it was charged and handled. We will now have to wait to see if the Justice Department will re-try Zimmerman as a civil rights matter. I have serious reservations about such an effort, but that can be for a later discussion. For now, a few observations on the verdict can serve to as a foundation for our own discussion.


The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin was not minutes old when an outcry was heard over racial injustice and demands for yet another prosecution by the Obama Administration. There was even a call for President Barack Obama to address the nation from the Oval Office to promise action to quell projected violence. With the verdict, the George Zimmerman case entered the realm of legal mythology – a tale told by different groups in radically different ways for different meanings. Fax machines were activated with solicitations and soundbites previously programmed for this moment. The legal standards long ago seemed to be lost to the social symbolism of the case.

Criminal cases make for perfect and often dangerous vehicles for social expression. They allow long-standing social and racial issues to be personified in villains and victims. We simplify facts and characters – discarding those facts that do not fit our narrative. We pile meanings on the outcome that soon make the actual murder secondary to the message. George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin became proxies in a long-standing our unresolved national debate over race.

Before the case is lost forever to the artistic license of social commentary, a few legal observations should be considered, even if unpopular, before condemning this jury.

First, many of us from the first day of the indictment criticized State Attorney Angela Corey for overcharging the case as second-degree murder. While Corey publicly proclaimed that she was above public pressure, her prosecution decisions suggested otherwise. Investigators incorporated the family in key interviews. For example, one key witness was first interviewed by an attorney for Martin’s family and then talked to prosecutors in the home of Martin’s mother. The prosecutors were accused of withholding evidence from the defense until shortly before trial — a delay that the defense said denied them the ability to use text messages that portrayed Martin in a more violent image.

However, the widespread protests and anger over the shooting seemed to have its greatest impact on Corey’s decision to charge the case as murder in the second degree. This was clearly a challenging case even for manslaughter and the decision to push second-degree murder (while satisfying to many in the public) was legally and tactically unwise. The facts simply did not support a claim beyond a reasonable doubt that George Zimmerman acted with intent and a “depraved mind, hatred, malice, evil intent or ill will.” Had Corey charged manslaughter, the case might have been closer but would have still been a challenge.

Many people were highly critical of the prosecution for putting on what seemed like a case for Zimmerman. The prosecution clearly made its share of mistakes like leading its case with the testimony of Trayvon Martin’s friend, Rachel Jeantel. Jeantel was a disastrous witness who had to admit to lying previously under oath and produced conflicted testimony. She also stated that just as Zimmerman was accused of calling Martin a derogatory name, Martin called Zimmerman a “cracker.”

The prosecution consistently overplayed its hand in a desperate attempt to overcome its own witnesses, such as handling the damaging testimony from the detective that Martin’s father clearly denied that it was his son calling for help (He later changed his mind after listening to the tape 20 times). Even after being criticized by many experts for overcharging the case, the prosecution proceeded to make a demand at the end of the trial that the jury be able to convict Zimmerman on a different crime: third degree murder based on child abuse. The judge wisely rejected that demand but allowed the jury to consider manslaughter as a lesser charge.

However, in the end it was the case and not the prosecution that was demonstrably weak. The fact is that we had no better an idea of what happened that night at the end of this trial than we had at the end of that fateful night. Jurors don’t make social judgments or guesses on verdicts. While many have criticized Zimmerman for following Martin, citizens are allowed to follow people in their neighborhood. That is not unlawful. It was also lawful for Zimmerman to be armed. The question comes down to who started the fight and whether Zimmerman was acting in self-defense.

Various witnesses said that Martin was on top of Zimmerman and said that they believed that Zimmerman was the man calling for help. Zimmerman had injuries. Not serious injuries but injuries to his head from the struggle. Does that mean that he was clearly the victim. No. It does create added doubt on the question of the use of lethal force.

There is also no evidence as to who threw the first punch or committed the first physical act in the struggle. A juror could not simply assume Zimmerman was the aggressor. Zimmerman was largely consistent in his accounts and his account was consistent with some witnesses. After 38 prosecution witnesses, there was nothing more than a call for the jury to assume the worst facts against Zimmerman without any objective piece of evidence. That is the opposite of the standard of a presumption of innocence in a criminal trial. There was evidence to support both accounts but that evidence remained in equipoise, leaving the jury with no objective basis to reject one over the other.

Even for manslaughter, the jury had to find that George Zimmerman intentionally committed an act or acts that caused the death of Trayvon Martin. but was told that “a killing that is excusable or was committed by the use of justifiable deadly force is lawful.” The jury instruction on deadly force states in part: “A person is justified in using deadly force if he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself.” That lesser charge still brings the jury back to the question of who started the fight and how the fight unfolded. The prosecutors never had evidence to answer that question in a reasonably definitive way. In the end, the jury had no serious alternative to acquittal. That does not mean that they liked Zimmerman or his actions. It does not even mean that they believed Zimmerman. It means that they could not convict a man based on a presumption of guilt.

Of course, little of this matters in the wake of a high-profile case. The case and its characters long ago took on the qualities of legend. A legend is defined as “a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but unauthenticated.” People will make what they will of the murder trial of George Zimmerman. However, this jury proved that the justice system remains a matter not of legend but law.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.


  1. Why did the defence not do things like
    – use foresics rather tham Shakesperian bombast to propose reasons for some/all of Zimmerman’s injuries
    – counter MOM’s 4-minute stunt with their own 3-minute stunt for Zimmerman’s unexplained time even after he had realised that Martin might not have kept moving
    – use large graphics to illustrate the missing minutes in Zimmerman’s accounts v his consistent demials that he delayed at any stage
    – point out clearly on a timeline graphic that the Martin/Jeantal call dropped some time after the fight started – just as Jeantal had reported
    – counter MOM’s little “tell me if he does anything” walk with Zimmerman not saying *then* that Martin was circling his truck. ie.e he invented this later – and indeed dropped it in the Hannity interview.
    – show the impossibility of Zimmerman’s Hannity account on a timeline and v. his previous stories.
    – List all these lies ( NOT using a stream of PowerPoint slides please!!)

    Because they are buffoons! Unbeliveably inept! Morons!

    They spent their time reenacting Falstaff describing a terrible massacre of women and children.
    What they should have done was to graphically illusttrate a very clear case of manslaughter.

  2. Ralph,

    ” (because I mentioned that I’ve fired 9mm and 38mm guns using one hand and was accurate at very short distance targets, and the recoil was not too strong). However, I’m not going to try his particular experiment because I’m not a professional with guns, and would leave that kind of testing to the experts. ”

    To save you the trouble of scrolling up, here is that video again.

    It shows two experienced guys who review a lot of firearms.
    They are testing THAT particular gun – the Kel Tec PF-9
    The test that they are conducting is specifically the recoil action.
    The video does not just happen to show recoil.
    Recoil is the purpose of that particular session.

    They show the recoil from back and side. They show it real time and slow-mo.
    You can see the significant kick, and that’s with a proper two-handed stance. These guys are experienced. They demonstate and talk clearly about the recoil. They show their hands after firing. “It’s a kicker all right!”

    You being quite accurate when firing some guns one-handed is irrelvant. You tconsidering the recoils from some guns you might have fired as “not too strong” is irrelevant.
    Those two experienced guys specifically demonstrating the significant recoil from *that particular gun model* is relevant.

    Have you watched that video, or are you in denial?

  3. Ralph,

    That “bloody nose” photo is simply Zimmerman’s face with blood on it.
    The same goes for the photos of the back of the head.
    The defence blew them for pimping because the blood has shock value – as if the amount of blood indicated the level of injury.
    It’s pure emotion.
    WIpe the blood off and you will see what injuries might lie beneath.
    Even Prof Turley was taken in by this nonsense. He posted a Zimmerman innocence thread with that photo at top.

    That sharp nick on his nose is there in the “BLOOD ZOMG ZOMG BLOOD!!” photo.
    The nose does look puffed up in that one. Apart from the blood, that’s it.

    If you want to know what his injuries actually were, read the report made by the medical assistant the following morning. That is the first and only formal report.

    The defence was also pimpping an EMT saying that Zimmerman’s head was 40% covered in blood.
    I think that 40% is something like John Good’s vertical and horizontal.
    Look at the pair of ‘bloody’ photos. To me, “40% covered in bllood” should mean that 40% of the skin on his head (including shaven hair) was obsured by blood.

  4. And where was the outrage from the NAACP, the New Black Panther Party, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and all the other race hustlers demanding justice for the murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman because the jury failed to convict the defendant?

    I must have missed that. Did any of you catch that?

  5. Another thought for today: from Yahoo, posted by George

    Of course, most of the protestors considered the O.J. Simpson case to be verification that the legal system works. However, they consider the Zimmerman judgment to be a miscarriage of justice. It just depends on whether the deceased is white or black.

  6. Thought for today: from Yahoo, posted by Curtis

    A 24 year old waitress at Joe’s Crab Shack was killed for her tip money after she got off work. She was killed by Michael Craig, Stephen Lee Henderson, and William Blasingame. Why is the media not outraged at this? Because she is white and the killers are black.

  7. Bob, you have obviously not had much experience with firearms. And I did not say there was no recoil. I said that it did NOT affect my aim at short distance targets. My accuracy goes way off dramatically as the target distance gets further away. But relatively close range, no problem. And in Zimmerman’s case, he’s using a 9mm semi-automatic pistol, where the recoil would have been nominal.

    Bottom line again: Martin pounced on Zimmerman and beat him, striking him in the nose and elsewhere, and Zimmerman responded by drawing his 9mm and firing. The gun caused none of the facial injuries. Defense hired a forensic pathologist to support this case. Prosecution hired nobody that they were willing to risk putting on the stand. End of story.

  8. Bron,

    Ralph’s 38mm handgun is approximately 1.5 caliber, so it fires bullets 1.5 inches in diameter.
    Ralph, being a stud, can fire his 38mm one-handed, and doesn’t notice any appreciable recoil.
    If Zimmerman had only fired one of those, it wouldn’t be necessary to try him. It would have required extensive cutting by the medical examiner to remove the pistol from his skull.

  9. bettykath, you say: “The back of the sight is what put those those two pin pricks on the tip of his nose, the source of all that blood in the bloody not photo. He did not have a standard bloody nose where the blood comes from the thingees in the nostrils.”

    That’s a similar speculation to Sling’s. He seems to want me to try to replicate the circumstances by actually firing a gun from that angle (because I mentioned that I’ve fired 9mm and 38mm guns using one hand and was accurate at very short distance targets, and the recoil was not too strong). However, I’m not going to try his particular experiment because I’m not a professional with guns, and would leave that kind of testing to the experts.

    However, if you and Sling have thought of your theory, don’t you think that the prosecution did too, or someone suggested it to them? Of course, that happened. And I believe that they actually attempted to engage forensic pathologists and ballistics experts that might be able to testify that the facts and circumstances of the case comport with the theory you two have posed. They either couldn’t find anybody to testify to your theory, no matter how much they were paid, or they did find some experts who agreed to testify in accordance with your theory, but they were demolished when the prosecution attorneys went through a mock cross-examination.

    Bottom line again: The theory that Zimmerman’s facial wounds were caused by the recoil from firing his own gun or were self-inflicted holds no water. And the prosecution knew that. The prosecution wasn’t stupid, and if they could have presented your theory, they would have.

  10. bk,

    I hope you stick around. If it’s any consolation, I don’t think there is a single guest blogger who hasn’t disagreed with JT at one time or another. Sometimes quite strongly.

  11. Darren, gz isn’t/wasn’t a cop. It just one more aspect of his wanna be.

  12. Woostie

    Thank you. It is still a matter of preference. I don’t know of any police who carried their pistols unchambered, myself included when I did that line of work. But if someone wants to do so, it’s their choice.

  13. Woosty, gz’s friend osterman said one in the chamber is the way the cops do it and that’s what he recommended his non-cop friend do. Obviously it was dangerous to Trayvon.

  14. Darren Smith
    1, July 14, 2013 at 2:53 pm

    Darren thank you for the explanation and insight….it is beyond me but the person I spoke to today is a gun afficionado and said just the opposite….that one was NOT to walk around with a bullet in the chamber w/this gun?… given what I know about this, I don’t know…

  15. The back of the sight is what put those those two pin pricks on the tip of his nose, the source of all that blood in the bloody not photo. He did not have a standard bloody nose where the blood comes from the thingees in the nostrils.

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