Below is today’s column on the Zimmerman trial, which is a close follow-up to the web column from the night of the acquittal. As expected, it appears that we have lost a few regulars upset with my opinion of the case. I am always sorry to lose people on our blog. However, this has never been an echo-chamber blog that maintains a party line or ideological view. While we remain fervently pro-free speech and civil liberties at this blog, we often disagree about the outcome of trials or the merits of cases or policies. We try to maintain a site where civil but passionate disagreements and debate can occur. As an academic and a legal commentator and columnist, I have always tried to be fair and call these cases as I see them regardless of how unpopular those views may be. At the same time, I have enjoyed reading the opposing views of others on this blog who often make fast and lethal work of my opinions. I realize that the killing of Trayvon Martin is loaded with social and racial meaning. Yet, this site is dedicated to tolerance and diversity of views in discussing the legal and policy issues of our times. I hope that those who stated that they would leave the site will return and rejoin our discussion. This is a blog that values differing opinions and free thought. This is a chorus not a solo performance and it is the variety of voices and views that makes this blog so unique.
Here is today’s print column:
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.
With the verdict, the Zimmerman case entered the realm of legal mythology — a tale told by different groups in radically different ways for different purposes. Fax machines were activated with solicitations and sound bites programmed for this moment.
Criminal cases often make for easy and dangerous vehicles for social expression. They allow longstanding 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. Zimmerman and Martin became proxies in our unresolved national debate over race.
Many have condemned this jury and some even called for the six jurors to be killed or demanded that they “kill themselves.” The fact is that this jury had little choice given the case presented by the prosecutors. This is why I predicted full acquittal before the case even went to the jury.
Before the case is lost forever to the artistic license of social commentary, it is worth considering what the jurors were given, or not given.
State attorney’s misstep
The problem began at the start. Many of us 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 interviewed a key witness at the Martin home in the presence of the family — a highly irregular practice.
The decision to push the second-degree murder charge (while satisfying many in the public) was legally and tactically unwise. The facts simply did not support a claim beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman acted with intent and a “depraved mind, hatred, malice, evil intent or ill will.” Had Corey charged manslaughter, the case might have turned out differently.
The prosecutors then made that bad decision of charges worse by overplaying their evidence to overcome the testimony of their own witnesses.
For example, the prosecution inexplicably decided to lead the case with testimony of Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel. Jeantel was a disaster, admitting to lying previously under oath and giving conflicted testimony. She also stated that just as Zimmerman was accused of calling Martin a derogatory name, Martin called Zimmerman a “cracker.”
The prosecution’s zeal for conviction seemed to blind it to the actual strengths and weakness of the case. It also led to allegations of withholding key evidence from the defense to deny its use at trial, though Judge Debra Nelson seemed to struggle to ignore the alleged misconduct.
Some questions unanswered
Ultimately, 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 judgment or guesses on verdicts.
While many have criticized Zimmerman for following Martin, citizens are allowed to follow people in their neighborhood. 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 Martin was on top of Zimmerman and said they believed that Zimmerman was the man calling for help. Zimmerman had injuries. Not serious injuries but injuries from the struggle. Does that mean that he was clearly the victim? No. It does create added doubt on the use of lethal force.
A juror could not simply assume Zimmerman was the aggressor. 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.
Even for manslaughter, the jury was told that Zimmerman was justified in the use of force if he feared “great bodily harm.” That brought the jury back to the question of how the fight unfolded.
The acquittal does not even mean that the jurors liked Zimmerman or his actions. It does not even mean 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 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.
July 15, 2013