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George Zimmerman & Reasonable Doubt

This post was originally written as part two of a two-part post. I split the post into two primarily because I figured if it took me two days to write it — and it was twice as long as even my longer articles that I normally write — I was going to get all kinds of tl;dr feedback.

Soon, an even better reason presented: I realized that as I continued to write, the two threads of the original idea diverged, and I truly had two different posts. Yesterday’s article covered a discussion, heavily documented with links to other website articles, stories, and opinions, of racism in the criminal “justice” system.

Today, I talk about the George Zimmerman case, and the otherwise-good people who would choose murder — although I’m fairly certain they would choose to have someone else do the murder for them — because a jury of six women found Zimmerman not guilty.

It has been difficult for me to be forced into the position of explaining to people that what happened in the recent case where George Zimmerman was being prosecuted for the alleged murdering Trayvon Martin was “the right thing,” under the law, primarily because it required me to do a lot of reading about a case that I normally would not even care about. It’s been more than a little irritating to recognize that otherwise intelligent people — even university professors — need me to point out that wanting someone to murder Zimmerman is wrong. It blows my mind that it’s even necessary to say this, but there was always reasonable doubt in this case, and the trial made that much crystal clear.

George Zimmerman may be an asshole. He has been repeatedly portrayed as an African-American-hating racist. (Although there is some uncertainty regarding that.) But that doesn’t matter. It’s not my goal to defend George Zimmerman, but I’m happy to defend the verdict because — and this doesn’t always happen — the system actually worked exactly as it was supposed to, despite media and public pressure for it not to do so. So, I might want to chew Zimmerman out for trying to play The Little Fat Policeman. I might think that if Zimmerman had not thought he was God’s gift to the Neighborhood Watch Trayvon would still be alive today. I might think ill of him for setting into motion the events that caused a child to be killed.

There are a couple of things I would not do, however. Based on what I know about the facts presented at his trial, I would not vote to convict him of murder. I would not even vote to convict him of manslaughter, either voluntary, or involuntary. And I would most certainly not be advocating his illegal murder, whether I agreed with the verdict, or not. (What, by the way, is the point of having trials, and allowing juries to decide verdicts, if you’re going to advocate murdering people when you disagree with the jury?)

While my view is not, apparently, shared by the ordinary citizen of the United States of America, it is amazingly common amongst criminal law attorneys, both defense and prosecutorial. As Bill Otis, who was himself a federal prosecutor, points out, even the original prosecutor did not think they could win. The evidence at trial was simply insufficient to show that Zimmerman was guilty.

Justin Peters, writing on Slate, lays it out:

Here is what we know: Trayvon Martin died in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26, 2012. If George Zimmerman hadn’t been there, Martin would still be alive. Zimmerman found Martin suspicious. He called 911. A confrontation ensued. Beyond that, the facts are unclear. There’s not much physical evidence in the case. Other than the defendant, there are no eyewitnesses. Zimmerman claims that he was attacked by Martin, and that he shot him because he felt he was at risk of great bodily harm. We can certainly speculate as to whether or not he’s telling the truth, but can we say for sure? Zimmerman’s the only one who was there, and none of the prosecution’s witnesses came close to conclusively refuting his story.

That’s a problem for the state. To convict Zimmerman, the prosecutors have to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. That hasn’t happened. And if the prosecution can’t prove its case, then Zimmerman should walk. Many will see this as an unsatisfying outcome; many will think it shouldn’t be this easy to kill someone, concoct an uncontradictable excuse, and get away with it. But a legally satisfying verdict cannot always be the same as a morally satisfying verdict. It would be unjust if Zimmerman were convicted based not on the strength of the evidence against him, but rather on the public sentiment against him.

Another Slate writer, William Saletan, clarifies things even further, as he explains how he transformed from being ready to jump on the bandwagon — the frenzy, as he now calls it — to lambast the Zimmerman verdict. But then a funny thing happened:

Yesterday I was going to write that Zimmerman pursued Martin against police instructions and illustrated the perils of racial profiling. But I hadn’t followed the case in detail. So I sat down and watched the closing arguments: nearly seven hours of video in which the prosecution and defense went point by point through the evidence as it had been hashed out at the trial. Based on what I learned from the videos, I did some further reading.

It turned out I had been wrong about many things.

What it boils down to is this: there is reason to doubt what happened between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin the night Trayvon was killed. After a two-week trial — which I know almost none of my readers were able to witness entirely because, like me, almost all of you have jobs, or other things to do — the evidence was just not enough to make the jurors feel certain beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman was guilty of any of the crimes with which he was charged.

You can argue all you want — although it is apparently not true — that Zimmerman was “ordered” not to get out of his car. You can correctly note that he was armed with a gun — one for which he had a valid lawfully-obtained permit. And you can rightly say that in an ideal world Trayvon Martin should not be dead.

The problem is that neither you, nor me, nor anyone else — possibly even including George Zimmerman himself — knows exactly what happened that night. What the evidence makes clear is that exactly what happened is unclear. Zimmerman followed Trayvon, believing (apparently wrongly) that he was up to no good. The two interacted. Zimmerman ended up with at least a bloodied nose, and blood and cuts on the back of his head which he alleged came from Trayvon bashing his head on the sidewalk. Did Trayvon attack Zimmerman because Zimmerman was following him? Did Trayvon attack Zimmerman because Zimmerman was pointing a gun at him? Did Trayvon attack Zimmerman at all?

These are questions about which we can speculate. These are questions about which we do not really know the answer. These are questions where the evidence doesn’t provide a clear picture.

That folks, is the very essence of not being certain beyond a reasonable doubt as to whether or not George Zimmerman is guilty of the charges of which he was — and by you all continues to be — accused.

Racism is a huge problem in America. It may, or may not, have played a role in Trayvon’s death. But one other thing is certain, when there is reasonable doubt as to whether or not a person committed a crime in America, the system is not supposed to lead to a conviction, and when you suggest that because he was acquitted, someone else should kill George Zimmerman, then it is you who are the murderer.

About that there is no doubt.