Why George Zimmerman was found “Not Guilty” (and why this verdict is unsatisfying)

As usual, if there’s a controversial topic that no one in their right mind wants to touch, I’m going to write about it.

The news came out this morning that a Florida jury found George Zimmerman “Not Guilty” of the charges of 2nd-Degree Murder and Manslaughter in his shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin.  This case has long been polarizing.

One side sees Zimmerman as an overzealous racial profiler who pursued and eventually shot an unarmed black teenager who was returning home from buying Skittles for a friend.

The other sees Zimmerman as a man who was tired of crime, and who shot Martin (a marijuana user who had a history of fighting in school) in self-defense.

Not being a lawyer, I relied heavily on this post by Cornell Law Professor William Jacobson:

What’s tricky about the case is that Zimmerman clearly acted foolishly in his actions leading up to his confrontation with Martin.  He followed Martin on foot despite suggestions from 911 dispatchers that he stay in his car, apparently fearing that the supposed “criminal” would “get away.”  In that sense, everything that followed was Zimmerman’s fault.

None of us will ever know what happened in that confrontation.  Here is the total of actual evidence:

  • George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin with a single gunshot to the heart and lung
  • Gunshot expert Vincent Di Maio said Martin’s clothing was 2-4 inches from his body when he was shot, consistent with his leaning over at the time
  • Zimmerman had suffered a number of minor injuries which did not require hospitalization–two head lacerations, wounds to his temples, and wounds to his nose and forehead.  The police and EMT who responded to the scene and tried to resuscitate Martin all observed Zimmerman’s injuries at the scene

Zimmerman’s story, which he told to police that night, was that he and Martin had a confrontation, and that Martin punched him.  The two struggled on the ground, and Zimmerman thought that Martin was reaching for Zimmerman’s gun, at which point Zimmerman drew the gun and fired.

Zimmerman’s argument of self-defense is simple: He used his gun because he thought Martin was reaching for it.  This meets the standard for Imminence and Reasonableness, and probably meets the standard for Avoidance as well, since he had no alternative, being on the ground and unable to disengage at that point.

Given the paucity of evidence, and the consistency of Zimmerman’s story with that evidence, I suspect that the jury had no choice but to render a “Not Guilty” verdict.  I would probably do the same in that situation.

Yet this verdict leaves most people (including me) feeling a sense of injustice.  Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager is dead, and his death would not have occurred without Zimmerman’s overzealous racial profiling.  The fact that Zimmerman is going unpunished, while Martin is dead, feels horribly unfair.

And yet, according to how the law works, Zimmerman was “Not Guilty.”  There are times when the law violates our instinctive sense of justice.  Yet these are precisely the times when we need to heed the law, rather than our own feelings.  An objective standard is generally fairer and easier to enforce than “gut feeling.”

My hope from all this is that the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death leads people to re-examine their own actions, and realize the dangers of racial profiling.  It is small comfort for his family, but it is the comfort that is available to them.

Note: I drew heavily on Wikipedia for this piece:

2 thoughts on “Why George Zimmerman was found “Not Guilty” (and why this verdict is unsatisfying)

  1. According to the dispatcher's recorded transcript, when asked for a description of the person Zimmerman was calling about, he replied that he did not know because the person was wearing a hoodie and visibility was poor due to the darkness and rain.

    Given that lack of information at what point did Zimmerman's pursuit become racist?

  2. You're a Harvard graduate and yet you draw heavily on Wikipedia, a website that can be edited by anyone including those who have an ideological axe to grind.

    It's common knowledge that most college professors do not except Wikipedia as a reliable source, why do you?

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