Slightly-Informed Second Thoughts on George Zimmerman

My initial reaction to the George Zimmerman verdict was disbelief and anger. I couldn’t believe that there would be no consequences for a grown man shooting a teenage boy to death. My tweets and retweets showed my anger:

But now I’ve had more time to think and read about the case, and it’s not as clear as I initially thought (and felt).

I hadn’t really paid close attention to the case before the verdict; the wall-to-wall coverage of the trial on CNN annoyed me as much as their obsession with Casey Anthony and Jodi Arias. But where I don’t even know if Casey and Jodi were found innocent or guilty (or if I have their names spelled correctly), I had a strong reaction to this verdict. It seemed obvious to me that there would be consequences for what I understood to be a self-appointed watchman stalking a black teenager, picking a fight, and then finishing the fight with a lethal shot. There would have to be consequences, right?

I realized that only Zimmerman’s side of the story was heard and there were no other witnesses, which means that we have no way to disprove anything that he claimed, even though he had such an obvious conflict of interest. That led to more tweets:

But then I read more, and I learned that Florida’s law for claiming self-defense uniquely puts the burden of proof on the state, not on the defendant (Update: I thought Florida was unique, but it’s actually that way in most states). While that seems to be a huge mistake in incentivizing everyone in a fight to escalate the confrontation, it does mean that the jury had to be convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that Zimmerman wasn’t in fear for his life. Unfortunately, that’s nearly impossible to prove when all the other witnesses are dead.

I had thought that Zimmerman’s actions to initiate the confrontation with Martin would mean that he shouldn’t be able to use self-defense, but that’s not true in Florida. In most states, the instigator can’t escalate due to fear, but he can in Florida. That meant it didn’t matter, according to Florida’s legal system, whether Zimmerman stalked Martin and ignored a police dispatcher and started a fight. Simply because he could claim to have been scared at some point, he could shoot to kill.

So, the horrible verdict, the verdict that makes no sense morally or in the big picture, the verdict that many will see as permitting open season on young black men because they are ‘scary’, is a verdict that follows the law and evidence.

Shit.

My initial emotional reaction is still there, but I have had to acknowledge that the jury returned the only verdict that would have made sense with the law, evidence, and prosecution they saw. Requiring a desired verdict in contravention of the law and evidence is the road to losing the rule of law. I don’t want to go down that road. Chris Hallquist rightly examines the danger of that road.

I said in Facebook debate that the law in Florida should be different. Based on this case, that seems true. However, I have to recognize that a good law professor would easily come up with a scenario in which I would want to defend the current law. I don’t really know what the law should be – I just know that another law would have supported a more preferable verdict in this one case.

This is a more complicated issue than I initially thought. I still think that Zimmerman probably bears the moral responsibility because he probably stalked and picked a fight with an unarmed kid for no reason other than the color of his skin. However, the death of his combatant cleared him of legal culpability.

What a horrible loophole.

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About Lance Finney

Father of two boys, Java developer, Ethical Humanist, and world traveler (when I can sneak it in). Contributor to Grounded Parents.
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