This post is the second in a series on the George Zimmerman trial. The first post really wasn’t about the trial at all, rather it gave opportunity to insert my thoughts, perceptions and experience into the current debate on race. In this post, I want to focus on the trial, the verdict, and the law. In my next post, I will discuss some of the aftermath of the case. As I said previously, I think that both my liberal and my conservative friends may be surprised at my comments.
When the verdict came in my Facebook and Twitter feeds lit up. Most of my online friends are white conservative Republicans many with libertarian-leanings. A large number would self-identify as evangelical Christians and many are gun owners as well. While I agree the jury returned the correct verdict, I was surprised at the level of glee (I am not sure how else to describe it) in the posts. They were celebrating the same way I did in the summer of 1978 when, while detassling and listening to a transistor radio, I heard the that the Supreme Court had overturned racial quotas in collegiate admissions in the landmark Bakke case! (I know, I was a political geek even then.)
Many of the status updates I saw were ecstatic, some examples:
Restored my faith in the system!
This rambling post is my response to the verdict. I will discuss: The Facts, The Non-Facts, The Law, The Verdict, and The Conclusion.
By way of disclaimer — readers should be aware that the author is a Christian, conservative, libertarian-leaning Republican of mixed race who holds an Iowa Non-Professional Permit to Carry Weapons, but has never owned a gun.
The facts in this case are relatively straightforward. But, in the homage to Bill Clinton, I want to clarify “what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” By fact I mean statement that is demonstrably or verifiably true. There can and are true statements regarding this case that cannot or have not been verified. For example some of George Zimmerman’s statements to police describe events for which there were no witnesses. While these may be true, I will in this discussion put them in the Non-Fact category since they are not verifiable.
Trayvon Martin was a 17-year-old black high school student. Martin was staying at the home of his father’s girlfriend who lived in a gated community in Sanford, Florida. Martin was serving a suspension from school after drug residue had been found in his backpack. On the night of the shooting, Martin was returning to his father’s girlfriend’s house carrying a bag of Skittles and a can of Arizona Watermelon Fruit Cocktail Juice. Martin was wearing a dark hoodie. Martin was unarmed on the night of the shooting. Martin’s social media posts and other electronic communications indicated that he had been involved in fights. Martin’s drug and fighting history was not admitted into evidence in court.
George Zimmerman, a white Hispanic was a 29 year old part-time college student. Zimmerman had applied unsuccessfully to join the Prince William, Virginia Police Department and took courses towards an associate’s degree in criminal justice. Zimmerman was captain of the neighborhood watch. On the night of the shooting, Zimmerman was armed with a Kel-Tec Pf9, 9mm handgun.
On the evening of Feb 26, 2012, Zimmerman was driving through the neighborhood and he called 911 to report a ‘suspicious person’. [911 transcript]
The dispatcher asked Zimmerman if the guy is ‘white black or Hispanic.’ Zimmerman responded, ‘He looks black.’
As Zimmerman continued to talk to the dispatcher he says, ‘… he’s running!’
The dispatcher and Zimmerman discuss which way Trayvon is running.
The dispatcher asks, ‘Are you following him?’
Zimmerman replies, ‘Yeah.’
The Dispatcher says, ‘OK, we don’t need you to do that.’
Zimmerman says, ‘OK.’
Police found Zimmerman standing next to Martins body. Martin had been shot in the chest at close range. Zimmerman had injuries to his face and the back of the head.
Zimmerman admitted to shooting Martin.
A witness made a 911 call in which screams from a struggle and a gunshot are heard.
A witness saw Martin on top of Zimmerman delivering repeated blows.
There are a number of assumptions in this case that many people believe are facts. While they may be true, they are largely unsubstantiated so I list some of them in the Non-Facts section.
George Zimmerman is a racist. [Well, everyone's a little bit racist :)]
Trayvon Martin was not a racist.
George Zimmerman singled out Trayvon Martin because he was black.
Trayvon Martin attacked George Zimmerman therefore Zimmerman acted in self defense.
George Zimmerman attacked Trayvon Martin, therefore Martin was killed while defending himself.
Martin purchased Arizona Tea and Skittles to make Purple Drank.
In this case, the prosecution asked for 2nd Degree Murder. Florida law defines 2nd Degree murder as:
The unlawful killing of a human being, when perpetrated by any act imminently dangerous to another and evincing a depraved mind regardless of human life, although without any premeditated design to effect the death of any particular individual …
The judge in her instructions gave the jury the option of finding Zimmerman guilty of Manslaughter as well. Under Florida law, Manslaughter is:
The killing of a human being by the act, procurement, or culpable negligence of another, without lawful justification according to the provisions of chapter 776 …
The chapter 776 reference above includes Florida’s Stand Your Ground law 776.012
… a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if: (1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony; or (2) Under those circumstances permitted pursuant to s. 776.013.
This is further clarified by 776.013(3)
A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
I believe that the jury made the correct decision. I was really surprised when the prosecution chose to try Zimmerman on 2nd Degree Murder. Apparently the judge was as well since she added the option of manslaughter in her instructions to the jury. Even without the no duty to retreat provisions of the law, I do not believe that a case could have been made for manslaughter. If Martin had attacked Zimmerman, Zimmerman may not have had an opportunity to retreat so Stand Your Ground would not even apply. Based on the lack of eyewitnesses there was insufficient evidence to convict Zimmerman of anything.
The jury made the right decision — George Zimmerman should have been found not guilty.
As I said before, I think a correct verdict was handed down by this jury. It was a decision consistent with the facts and Florida law. Was it justice? Since only George Zimmerman knows what really went on that night I have no idea.
On the other hand, I do think that George Zimmerman made a poor decision to exit his vehicle and that resulted in the confrontation that left Martin dead. A poor decision but not an illegal one. Zimmerman was under no legal compulsion to heed the dispatcher’s advice and not follow Martin. Part of any reasonable training on carrying a concealed weapon is the advice to not provoke conflict. Deadly force should be a last resort and while one is carrying a weapon, unless one is under imminent threat, every effort should be made to avoid potential conflict that could necessitate using it.
Zimmerman is not a hero as some of my conservative friends have suggested. Nor do I think he makes a good poster boy for Stand Your Ground. Even so, I definitely am a supporter of Stand Your Ground (and related Castle Doctrine) laws. As the Florida law says, and person who reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony should be free to use force, up to and including deadly force, to protect themselves if they have not initiated the confrontation, there should be no duty to retreat. In Iowa (since this is an Iowa political blog) Republicans have an opportunity to take over the Iowa Senate in 2014. If we do so, we need to enact a Stand Your Ground law.
What about race? What if Zimmerman decided that Martin looked suspicious because he was black? My answer is that it changes nothing in this case. He would have broken no law if he called because he saw a black teenager after midnight in his neighborhood. The issue at hand in this case, under Florida law was, did Zimmerman reasonably believe that he was under imminent threat of death or great bodily harm. And if so, had he the initiated the conflict by attacking Martin or otherwise breaking the law which would have exempted him from the protections of Florida 776.013.
It is likely that the Martin family will file a wrongful death lawsuit against Zimmerman. They have already settled a similar suit against the homeowner’s association on whose behalf Zimmerman was acting as neighborhood Watch Captain. I believe that if such a suit is filed, the Martin family should and will prevail.
Finally, the racial angle. This case has divided public opinion along racial lines. Since I am of mixed race, my opinions are mixed. Of course, the usual suspects (including President Obama, whose son — if he had one — would look like Trayvon) are using this incident as a cause célèbre to incite anger in the black community.
As I look at Facebook and Twitter, many of my friends are gleefully posting every news story they can find of black-on-white or black-on-black violence. In my opinion their actions are just as bad as those of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
As I said, the jury reached the correct verdict — so why am I not celebrating? One life lost, one life destroyed, two families devastated. Racial tensions increasing across the country. I see little here to celebrate. I am naive enough to want to live in a color blind world. I may lack the eloquence of Martin Luther King, but:
I want to live in a world where the only time I need to worry about the color of my skin is to determine whether I am tan enough to wear a salmon colored shirt — sadly I am not
Once again, a rambling post. My next post will be on the aftermath of the trial. In particular the federal response and the possibility of federal hate crime or civil rights prosecution.