The not-guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman case came as no surprise to those who had carefully followed the three-week trial. Nor to those who had predicted from the first that no Florida jury would convict the white/Hispanic wannabe-cop in the shooting death of the innocent and unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in a gated community in Sanford, Florida. Nor to the criminal justice experts who explained, also from the start, that a self-defense defense is hard for the prosecution to rebut, especially if the victim is dead.
The six jurors all women, none of them African American surprised some observers by deliberating for 16 hours and 20 minutes before returning their verdict late Saturday night [July 13]. With so much attention to the prosecution’s shortcomings and the defense team’s skillful playing of the reasonable-doubt card, some expected a verdict within a couple of hours.
The anonymous jurors have exercised their right to confidentiality, so the course of their deliberations remains for now unknown. Suffice it to say that the reports that the jury “believed” Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense may be an overstatement. It was enough for an acquittal that none of them found him “guilty” beyond a reasonable doubt of either second-degree murder or manslaughter.
The televised trial tested the patience of some observers, who thought Americans should be paying more attention to events in Egypt or the debate over electronic surveillance. But the Zimmerman case raised profound issues: race, crime, guns. The availability of gavel-to-gavel coverage prepared Americans for a verdict that might otherwise have been a jarring and disorder-producing shock.
Despite their importance, those issues were not argued in the courtroom. Judge Debra Nelson prohibited the prosecution from saying that Zimmerman had “racially”: profiled Martin on that rainy night in February 2012. Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law so much the focus in the weeks after the killing was in the background but not front and center: Zimmerman declined the chance to use the law to get the case dismissed without a full trial.
Instead, the trial turned into, of all things, a trial: with testimony from eyewitnesses, earwitnesses, investigators, experts, and friends and family of victim and defendant. Those who hoped for a conviction began complaining about the prosecution’s case by the time the trial reached the halfway point. They saw miscues, mistakes, and missed opportunities that doomed the case.
The judgment is too harsh. For one thing, the defense often has the advantage in a high-profile trial. The prosecutors are typically career civil servants: underpaid, overworked, underresourced. The defense lawyers whether paid or pro bono are often in a better position to pull out all stops for this one case, with a payoff in the form of national publicity and a possible book deal. The O.J. Simpson trial is an example, and not an isolated one.
In any event, the Zimmerman prosecution team had to play the hand it was dealt and it was not a good one. Martin was not alive to give his version of the fight that ensued after Zimmerman exited his car and the two of them a burly adult and a wiry teen struggled on the ground. Rachel Jeantel, the cellphone friend speaking with Martin in the moments before his death, was a witness with an unhelpful attitude. And the police investigators, including lead detective Chris Serino, very unhelpfully said they believed Zimmerman’s version, his inconsistencies notwithstanding.
Prosecutors perhaps could have done more with those inconsistencies and more with the logical inferences from some of the uncontradicted evidence. In the end, however, the trial came down to two highly disputed questions of fact: who was on top on the struggle and who was heard to scream in the final moments. The eyewitnesses from the neighborhood supported the defense version that it was Zimmerman on the ground, pummeled by Martin atop him. And the earwitnesses too except for Martin’s mother indicated it was Zimmerman, not Martin, heard to scream on the 911 tape.
The prosecution team responded to the verdict with as much dignity as they could muster. “I am disappointed with the verdict,” said chief prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda. “We accept it.” Co-counsel John Guy commended the Martin family. “They’ve been dignified, they’ve shown class,” he said.
The same cannot be said for Zimmerman’s family or his chief counsel, Mark O’Mara. Zimmerman’s brother, Robert Zimmerman, said on CNN that the family fears people “that would want to take the law into their own hands” apparently unaware of the irony. And O’Mara went so far as to say that if Zimmerman had been black, he would never have been charged. As refutation, bloggers dug up a 2007 case from New York in which a black homeowner was convicted of manslaughter for the shooting death of a white punk making trouble in his front yard.
Was justice done? The Martin family had their day in court, however unsatisfying. Zimmerman goes free, not guilty but also not innocent. But true justice would require that Martin have found his way home that night, unimpeded. Do we know the truth of what happened that night? No. A nation still divided by race and ideology has to live with two versions of truth, never to meet.