Was George Zimmerman Innocent? Would He Be In Texas?

July 15, 2013

I'm certainly not an authority on criminal law, either in Texas or Florida, as I specialize in personal injury law here. And I admittedly didn't follow this sensational case in detail. But since so many people are talking about it and loudly demonstrating against the verdict's fairness, there were many legal reasons why George Zimmerman had to be acquitted, unfortunately.

1. The case was incredibly weak -- so flimsy that the prosecutor at first refused to even press any charges. It wasn't until there was a public uproar that the governor (Rick Scott, who was my moot court instructor in law school) stepped in. And knowing how hard it would be to convict George Zimmerman of murder, the new prosecutor also requested an easier to prove charge of manslaughter, and even that failed.

2. The file was a mess. What little evidence there was was wildly contradictory and inconclusive, and even that was mishandled. This became even more important because there were no living witnesses to the shooting other than Mr. Zimmerman, who naturally exercised his Fifth Amendment right not to testify.

3. The police and prosecution made critical errors in their investigation, trial preparation, jury selection, and trial tactics. Most of the jurors were white, pro-guns, and several had been the victims of violence themselves.Three of the DA's key witnesses, including Mr. Martin's girl friend who was talking to him on the phone just before the altercation, the chief investigator who told the jury he believed Mr. Zimmerman's account was truthful, and the doctor who performed the autopsy gave weak testimony that bolstered the defense's case.

4. It was impossible for the jury to know what had really happened that night. Who threw the first punch? Who was yelling for help and what was said in the garbled 911 call? When did Mr. Zimmerman first draw his gun? He told police that night that he didn't shoot Mr. Martin until the teenager had thrown him onto the ground, punched him, and knocked his head into the concrete.The pictures of his bloody nose and cuts and lumps on the back of his head clearly swayed the jury.

5. The law was heavily on Mr. Zimmerman's side. Florida's expansive "stand your ground law" unabashedly allows a person to use deadly force and even creates a presumption that its use is lawful. Further, the prosecution's burden of proof is much higher in Florida than in almost ever other state; the prosecutor was required to prove that the defendant did not act in self-defense, not the other way around. Even if Zimmerman wrongfully provoked the attack, the law allowed him to defend himself unless at the time he shot Mr. Martin, he was full of ill will, hatred, spite or evil intent, an enormously difficult burden of proof that was not supported by any evidence.

Race was a factor but I don't think it was the culprit. True, Mr. Zimmerman was presumably more suspicious of Mr. Martin because he was black. In addition, five of the six women on the jury were white, but the state could have struck any one who it deemed to have been biased in favor of the defendant. But a key fact is that Mr. Zimmerman, who is half Peruvian/Hispanic, never told the police that Mr. Martin was black the night of the shooting until he was asked. No evidence was adduced to show that the defendant was a racist filled with ill will against minorities. If Zimmerman had been black and Martin white, the verdict would have had to be the same under Florida law.

What might have been the result of this trial if it had happened here in Texas? It appears likely that we would have seen the same outcome with the same judge, lawyers, and jury, as Texas has a similar "stand your ground" law and pro-gun culture.

What will happen next? The state cannot appeal, so the criminal prosecution is over. Perhaps the Department of Justice will file a federal civil rights complaint for hate crimes against Mr. Zimmerman, as that law has been expanded recently. But the burden of proof again is extremely high, and there does not appear to be sufficient evidence to warrant these charges according to legal experts.

Possibly a civil lawsuit for wrongful death will be filed by Mr. Martin's parents.You may remember that after a similar high profile, media-crazed case when O.J. Simpson was acquitted -- some think because the mostly black jury sympathized with his race -- the parents of the two decedents obtained a huge $33 million civil court verdict (most of which has never been collected). But here, Florida's "stand your ground law" specifically immunizes Mr. Zimmerman from such a civil lawsuit. At least Mr. Martin's parents have already settled their lawsuit against the homeowners association where Zimmerman worked for over one million dollars.

Many people are angry. I understand why. This case is a tragedy. A young, unarmed man is dead. I hate that it happened. We all do. But in our country, thankfully a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. It seems that many protesters let their emotions and personal opinions help them assume that the trial would automatically result in a guilty verdict, regardless of the law and the evidence. The defendant wasn't absolved of any culpability, but the state didn't meet its burden of proof and the jury had to acquit him. And until Florida (or Texas) rewrites its laws, the exact same verdict would happen again.