Crime, Minority Issues, Racism, Trials, Violence

The Zimmerman Trial: What Legal Ground Are We Standing On?

What if this the last ‘reasonable man’ you ever saw?

Like many Americans, I’ve spent the last 24 hours seriously considering the physical and scientific evidence available to support or refute the contentions being made in one of the greatest television events of our time. I’m talking, of course, about Sharknado. Would a tornado carry sharks miles inland, and could those sharks be stopped by a chainsaw-wielding Ian Ziering?

Of course, if they had hired a black actor to kill great white sharks, he’d be on trial for murder now.

Based on our traffic numbers, a lot of you want to talk about the George Zimmerman trial. As closing arguments wrap up today and the case goes to the jury, let’s talk about the legal standards in play. What will the jury actually be trying to decide? We’re talking about the legal standards in Florida, so you know it’s going to be interesting…

First of all, I have no intention to relitigate this trial in this post. If after all this you don’t think Zimmerman is guilty, there’s nothing I’m going to say here to change your mind. Obviously, there’s nothing you guys are going to say that’s going to change my mind. So let’s leave it at that for now.

What I want to do is just my little part to dispel some of the terrible legal pontifications streaming around the internet and television at the speed of light. I feel like a non-lawyer who hasn’t been paying close attention to this trial thinks this case comes down to whether or not the prosecution can prove that Zimmerman went out to kill black people that day, and if he didn’t that Zimmerman had the right to stand his ground against any hoodies in the area.

So let’s just look at some of the legal terms that I’ve seen thrown around this week in some dumb fashion:

* “Beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The prosecution has to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Zimmerman wasn’t acting in self-defense when he shot Trayvon Martin — as it’s already been established that he did shoot and kill Trayvon Martin. Now lawyers can fill case books debating what “beyond a reasonable doubt” actually means, but it doesn’t mean the prosecution must “disprove all other possibilities.” Is it possible that Trayvon Martin hid in the bushes, jumped George Zimmerman, started beating the heck out of him, and Zimmerman had to shoot to kill to save his own life? Sure. Anything is possible. It’s possible that *I* called Trayvon, told him “get that creepy-ass cracker,” then threw my cell phone in the river.

But the question is not what’s possible, the question is what’s reasonable. The prosecution had to prove that Zimmerman started the fight. Or they had to prove that during the fight Zimmerman unreasonably believed he was in serious danger.

* “Stand your ground.”

HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THIS TRIAL. Christ almighty. George Zimmerman is arguing self-defense. He’s arguing that Trayvon Martin started the fight, and that during the fight Zimmerman became reasonably (there’s that word again) afraid of death or serious bodily harm that he was justified in his use of deadly force.

* “Manslaughter.”

This is the fun one because… Flori-duh.

Yesterday, Judge Debra Nelson allowed the jury to consider manslaughter as well as murder two. If you are a non-lawyer, this probably makes sense to you because “manslaughter” sounds like a middle ground. If you are a non-Florida lawyer, manslaughter probably also makes sense to you, since that is what probably actually happened — or at least what the prosecution has proved. There’s a man fighting a boy, an armed man fighting an unarmed boy, blood on the boy’s hands, and a dead boy. When is that not at least manslaughter?

Well, maybe in Florida. The Wall Street Journal has an excellent breakdown of the Florida law here. Unlike most states, Florida doesn’t recognize the concept of “imperfect self-defense.” Basically, in Florida of all places, it’s impossible for a jury to find that the defendant overreacted. In Florida, if a person reasonably believes he’s in danger — he can pretty much do anything he wants.

Wonderful state you’ve got down there.

According to the WSJ, here’s the manslaughter loophole:

In Florida, a judge can choose to give juries a middle-of-the-road option, saying it can convict someone of voluntary manslaughter if it isn’t convinced that the defendant acted out of “ill will, hatred, spite, or evil intent.” Voluntary manslaughter is a catch-all offense that includes a killing caused by “culpable negligence.”

It’d be kind of funny, given the racial tensions surrounding this case, if the jury found Zimmerman guilty of manslaughter, acknowledging that he negligently killed Martin, but without “ill will, hatred, spite, or evil intent.”

In any event, I know there are a lot of people out there who couldn’t care less about the legal standards and have already made up their minds about this case. I am one of those people. But it’s getting a little bit frustrating to hear people talk about the law, incorrectly, and act like the law “demands” one conclusion or another. If you believe that Zimmerman should be acquitted, then all you’re really saying is that you believe Zimmerman’s version of events more than the prosecution’s. Own it.

The Manslaughter Option in Zimmerman’s Trial: An Explainer [Wall Street Journal]

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