Predictably, the Zimmerman verdict has triggered headlines, sharp controversy, and protests. This was bound to happen regardless of whether he was acquitted or convicted. I leave it for others to tell us about the grand lessons this trial teaches about race, violence, and firearms. I will note, however, that the trial was not about any of these larger themes, and the jury’s verdict spoke only about Zimmerman’s conduct when he shot Trayvon Martin to death. It was not, in short, a show trial of any sort.
The trial’s meaning for me reaches backward and forward in time. It reaches backward to a moment in my professional life when I was on the receiving end of the same verdict as a prosecutor–an acquittal in a highly publicized murder case in which the defendant claimed self-defense. Looking forward its lessons will undoubtedly permeate my One-L Criminal Law class in fall (students are hereby placed on notice). The lesson is not one that dwells on the sensational publicity the Zimmerman trial garnered or the emotional devastation suffered by the Martin family, but rather on its banality as an exemplar of a criminal trial–how it illustrates work-a-day principles relating to the definition of crimes, the elements of defenses, and, most important, the burdens of proof.
Zimmerman’s defense lawyer was quoted as saying “We proved George Zimmerman was not guilty.” Assuming a correct quote, the statement is nonsense on about every level. The defense proved no such thing and was under no duty to do so.
In a murder case like this one, where there are no true eyewitnesses and nary a surveillance camera, only two people know what happened. The State’s best witness, the victim, is dead–killed by the only surviving witness, the defendant. And he cannot be compelled to testify, unless, of course, it is in his best interest to do so. Let’s agree that this creates some serious hurdles for the prosecution.
Proving the murder charge here is relatively straightforward: it is undisputed that Zimmerman shot Martin to death. The proof problems relate to the self-defense. Once self-defense is raised, as Zimmerman did through his police-conducted interviews and some physical evidence, the burden is on the prosecutor to “rebut” it beyond a reasonable doubt. Like many jurisdictions, Florida law (apparently) authorizes deadly force whenever the defendant “reasonably believes” he is in danger of death or great bodily harm. What was Zimmerman thinking the moment he pulled the trigger, taking Martin’s life? Did he “really” believe he was in grave danger, or was he enraged by Martin’s defiance? Self-defense also asks what a “reasonable person” in Zimmerman’s shoes would have done–which, of course, begs the question of whether any reasonable person would be on such a patrol to begin with.
The difficulty of negating Zimmerman’s asserted beliefs beyond a reasonable doubt cannot be gainsaid. The best way is to catch him in a lie. But where the defendant elects not to testify–which is his constitutional right–the State is left with the slim pickings from his prior statements or other evidentiary scraps. Perversely, then, the State’s objective was to prove that Zimmerman lied–a heck of a way to prove he murdered Martin. The very difficulty also tempts prosecutors to overcharge cases in an effort to coax a guilty plea from the defendant or a compromise verdict by the jury. Neither happened here but the temptation is omnipresent.
As the nation obsesses about the verdict’s meaning perhaps we should think about the banalities of self-defense law along with race and firearms policies. In insanity cases, for example, most jurisdictions now impose the burden of proof on the defense, a procedural innovation sparked by outrage over the John Hinckley verdict (remember?). In light of the nation’s passion for firearms permits, perhaps it”s time to talk about restructuring who must prove what in self-defense cases. In the end, though, I’m glad the case was tried to a jury. In a system dominated by plea bargaining, it’s institutionally healthy for us to know that the trial is a viable option for both defendants and prosecutors. As distraught as the Martin family surely is, I can’t imagine they would have felt better had the prosecutors finagled a guilty plea to a “reckless-something” charge.