Some Reflections on the Zimmerman Verdict

For the latter half of the twentieth century and arguably into the twenty-first, Texas was the black hole of American politics, the place that gave us not only the Kennedy assassination but, through Lyndon Johnson and the two Presidents Bush, three wars, as well as much of the oil that ended up polluting our major cities.

Recently, however, Florida has made a strong bid to overtake Texas to become the new black hole. There was, of course, the fiasco of the 2000 election with its hanging chads and butterfly ballot and inexplicably large turnout of Palm Beach voters for Pat Buchanan, and it’s largely been down hill from there. Since 2000, Florida has seen, among other things, continued mismanagement of the electoral process (in 2012,an estimated 2 million Florida voters lived in precincts that had to stay open more than 90 minutes after the polls were scheduled to close because of the length of the lines outside polling places), the advent of the nation’s first “Stand Your Ground” statute, and, most recently, the George Zimmerman trial.

There has been much outrage expressed over the verdict in the Zimmerman case. Googling “outrage over Zimmerman verdict,” one finds reports of demonstrations in Los Angeles, arrests at protests in New York, “outrage” from the NAACP, the inevitable “outrage” from Michael Moore, “outrage” on Twitter from “celebs,” even “outrage” from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who reportedly called the verdict “an apparent travesty of justice.”

There are many things about the Zimmerman case that are saddening and discouraging, but the actual verdict was not a travesty of justice. Notwithstanding the foolish and wrong-headed remarks of Juror B37 on Anderson Cooper’s TV show (in which she said, among other things, that Zimmerman was “justified” in shooting Trayvon Martin), the fact is that, in a criminal trial, where guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and in which there were no first-hand witnesses other than the defendant, and in which Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, while never formally invoked by the defense, was undoubtedly a silent presence in the courtroom, a criminal conviction for murder was never in the cards.

It has been argued that the case was overcharged and the prosecution should have pressed only manslaughter charges (rather than murder or manslaughter charge that ultimately went to the jury), but it’s hard to underestimate the outrage that would have attended an initial indictment that not included a murder charge. It has been argued that the prosecution did a poor job, especially in preparing its witnesses, but, even if the prosecution witness testimony had been impeccable, it would still have been in conflict with the testimony of defense witnesses. It has been argued that the state of Florida took too long to investigate the case and bring an indictment, thereby perhaps losing valuable evidence to the corrosive effects of time, but this is not even speculation; it is wishful thinking.

Given the limitations of what the prosecution could prove, convicting Zimmerman would have required the jury to ignore what had to be reasonable doubts about what actually happened when George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin.

In a carefully worded formal statement, issued by the White House, several days before President Obama’s less formal statements to the White House press corps, the President said: “The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy…. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.” While this is a considerable improvement on Governor Cuomo’s intemperate remarks, it is hardly recognition of the fact that the jury verdict was probably the correct one.

The President came closer to acknowledging that in his extended remarks in the White House briefing room: “The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed that in a case such as this reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury has spoken, that’s how our system works.” But “reasonable doubt” was more than relevant in the criminal case; it was, or, at least, should have been, the essence of the jury’s verdict. It is probably too much, however, to expect the President to come out and say this.

At least he did not go in the other direction, invoking his powers as president and proclaiming, as presidents are wont to do in moments of crisis, that he would bring the full resources of the federal government to bear on this case and would not rest until George Zimmerman was brought to justice. Here is what he said: “I know that Eric Holder is reviewing what happened down there, but I think it’s important for people to have some clear expectations here. Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government, the criminal code. And law enforcement is traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.”

Despite what must have been considerable pressure to echo the demands of the NAACP and others for the federal government to file civil rights charges against Zimmerman, Obama’s remarks couldn’t leave anyone with the impression that the President would expect (much less direct) the Attorney General to prosecute Zimmerman under federal statutes. Such a prosecution would require the government to prove Zimmerman’s motives, never an easy thing to do, and to delve again into the murky facts concerning what actually happened on the night Trayvon Martin was killed. Perhaps Attorney General Holder will find a sound basis for a federal prosecution, and if he does, he should bring it, but, if he doesn’t find a sound basis, he should let the matter rest. Another acquittal will help no one.

Rather than acceding to the demands for a federal prosecution, the President deflected them. While clearly and properly expressing the sadness of the African-American community and explaining that sorrow to the other Americans, the President’s ultimate message was that the problem was not the Zimmerman verdict; the problem is the underlying laws and the legal system that enforces them. He suggested that perhaps we might want to rethink the utility of Stand Your Ground laws, that we might work on finding ways to make law enforcement more effective and even-handed, that we might want to find a way to “bolster and reinforce our African-American boys.”

“We have to be vigilant, and we have to work on these issues,” he said, and then he concluded that “we’re becoming a more perfect union—not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.” Put another way, he might have said that we are working to make sure that, as a country, we do not all become Florida.

About Lawrence Peitzman

Lawrence Peitzman is a lawyer in Los Angeles.
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