You’re not the only one to ask, that’s for sure. The short answer is this:
- The prosecution had the burden to remove all reasonable doubt from the jury’s minds — both that Zimmerman had committed every element of the crimes charged, and that he had not acted in self-defense.
- This was a very difficult case for them to prove. Their evidence was iffy and called for a lot of speculation. Their arguments were easily shot down by the defense. And the defense view of the case was fairly consistent with the evidence. At the end of the day, there was plenty of room for doubt about a lot of important things.
- With all that doubt, the jurors found that the state had not met its burden, which meant that they had to say “not guilty.”
Different people are confused and upset about this for different reasons.
Some are confused about what the evidence was, how the law applied to it, and where all the reasonable doubt came from. I can try to go over all that with illustrations later, if you like. (I don’t mind, it’d be fun.)
Others are confused because they think the jury’s job was to decide what really happened, rather than to decide whether the state had proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury’s verdict doesn’t mean “George Zimmerman is innocent” or “George Zimmerman was justified to shoot in self-defense.” All it means is “the prosecution did not prove every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt” and “the prosecution did not prove it wasn’t self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Also, in cases like this, a lot of people take sides without knowing (or even caring) what the actual evidence was, or how the law applies to it.
Instead, a lot of people take sides, for and against, because they want to further some sort of political agenda. There is a narrative they want the case to tell, regardless of what the facts really were. It’s all about their cause, not the case. So of course they get upset when the jury’s verdict doesn’t fit their narrative.
And a lot of other people take sides because they get the sense that one or the other is the “right” side to be on. Sort of a knee-jerk, follow-the-crowd sort of thing. They may not really know what was going on, but they feel that they are on the side of good and justice. So of course they get upset when the jury’s verdict isn’t what the crowd had led them to expect.
Yes, juries can and do come back with bizarre verdicts that make you wonder how many brain cells they had between them. But this just isn’t one of those cases. The jury’s verdict was not at all unsurprising, given what came out during the trial. It would be very easy for people of ordinary judgment to believe that the government came nowhere near proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Zimmerman may or may not have committed the crime with which he was charged. But that jury had good reason to come back with a “not guilty” verdict after that trial.
You wanna hear something shocking? I don’t think the prosecutors really believed they had a case.
This case is an excellent example of why the criminal justice system isn’t about appeasing popular opinion. In large part, it’s supposed to be a protection against popular opinion — and the witch-hunts and lynchings that seem to go along with it. Here, the state tried to appease popular opinion, and just made everything worse.
As everyone knows, the police and prosecutors who originally had the case didn’t want to charge Zimmerman with anything. They repeatedly stated that everything they found was consistent with self-defense. The case became a cause célèbre, and people across the country clamored for Zimmerman to be prosecuted. But they insisted that doing so would be wrong.
First the police chief was reassigned and then fired. Obama gave a speech. The DOJ said they’d investigate possible civil rights violations. All to appease public opinion.
And then the governor stepped in and took the case away from the original prosecutors. Instead, he gave it to a new prosecutor, who seems to have had marching orders to just charge the guy.
Although a grand jury had been convened to decide whether there was sufficient evidence to charge him, the new prosecutor reportedly said she’d skip the grand jury. Instead, she merely filed an affidavit from her own office, which charged him with murder two.
Tellingly, she told reporters “what we promised to do was get this case in front of a jury, and give Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman their day in court.”
Those words ought to be chilling to anyone who cares about how criminal justice is supposed to work.
What I hear in her words is that it didn’t matter whether they thought Zimmerman was guilty, or whether they thought they could prove it. All that mattered was giving the public the trial the protesters had been demanding.
Prosecutors aren’t supposed to do that. They’re not supposed to prosecute you just because people are calling for your blood. They’re not supposed to take you to trial when they don’t believe the charges have merit. But that’s sure what it sounds like the state did here.
And that’s exactly the kind of thing our criminal justice system is supposed to prevent from happening.
And in the end, did it work? Did they really appease those who were calling for Zimmerman to be tried? Not at all.
The problem didn’t go away. Instead, the whole thing got dragged out another year. All the anguish, anger and confusion. All the emotion and outrage that came to a boil the first time around happened all over again with the media circus surrounding the trial.
And people took sides again, and got swept up in their righteous indignation, only to have their expectations dashed by the (perhaps inevitable) not-guilty verdict at the end. Which only led to more anguish, anger, confusion, marches, demands for heads, etc. Martin’s family got dragged through the process only to be let down. Well-intentioned witnesses got made fun of and called names in front of the world. Zimmerman got an acquittal, but not vindication, and is apparently in hiding now and in fear for his life. And regardless of what side they’re on, people’s faith in the justice system has been shaken profoundly — which may perhaps be the worst outcome of all.
All of which could have been avoided if the governor hadn’t tried to do an end-run around the original prosecutor’s judgment. It would have all been over a year ago. People wouldn’t have been happy about it, but it would have ended.
Instead, the state pandered to public opinion, and everyone — everyone — is worse off for it.
Wow, it’s way past my bedtime. I should probably go back and make that a lot shorter, but g’nite.