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article imageOp-Ed: The death of justice — A postmortem of the Zimmerman trial

By Rabeh Soofi     Jul 14, 2013 in Crime
“Acquitted.” Reminiscent of the front page headlines on every paper when the Rodney King verdicts were read on April 30, 1992, those words were handed down in the George Zimmerman trial yesterday.
They have sparked the same outrage that divided the nation twenty-one years ago. Since news of Zimmerman’s acquittal and release back into the public has traveled through news channels, social media, and televisions, individuals and families across the nation have been asking themselves how, as a civilized nation, we have reached a point in our society that it is somehow acceptable for an armed adult to stalk, harass, and then shoot and kill an unarmed teenager, and somehow, evade accountability for his actions in a court of law.
From a cultural standpoint, the acquittal signifies everything that is wrong with our society – actions and conduct that are deeply immoral somehow fall through the cracks of justice, while in other circumstances, far lesser wrongs often involving money or property tend to be prosecuted with stunning diligence with maximum retribution sought not only to punish the perpetrator but to set an example for all those who care to commit the same acts. Take for example, the RIAA prosecution of teenagers for file-sharing, including suing a 13-year old teenager hospitalized with pancreatitis for downloading 10 mp3 songs. Martha Stewart, jailed for avoiding a loss of $45,000 of stocks on an insider tip. The second O.J. Simpson trial, resulting in a 15-year prison sentence, over a botched raid to recover sports memorabilia. Even patting your lawyer on the backside will land you 30 days in jail – just ask Chad Ochocinco. Countless individuals have been prosecuted successfully and jailed for far lesser infractions. Is the life of a black teenager in America truly less valuable than mp3s, sports paraphernalia, or stock trading information?
As some have commented, although there is a “court of law,” there is also the court of public opinion. There is a chasm of a thousand oceans between Americans’ sentiments on the moral wrongfulness of Zimmerman’s actions, and the jury’s verdict fully exonerating him. From a legal perspective, that sort of disconnect is usually a microcosm for a gap between the case that the prosecutors presented to the jury in the courtroom and “what matters” in the court of public opinion. One of the greatest fears of every lawyer is getting so drawn down in the technicalities and legal details of the case that you forget what actually matters to a jury. The reality is that juries often care very little about evidentiary matters that often consume jury trials. They tend to have very little patience for legal technicalities or nuanced legal jargon. Juries tend to be comprised of ordinary Americans who want to get to the meat of the case. Studies into the mindset and attitudes of jurors consistently conclude that jurors are by and large very conscientious, want to give a fair opinion, and follow the rules lawyers and Judges give them.
So what then went wrong? How could fair, impartial, and well-intentioned jurors come to the conclusion that Zimmerman should be let free and back into the well-manicured lawns of the affluent Florida subdivision from whence he came? Here is the legal post-mortem autopsy outlining the reasons for the ultimately failed Zimmerman trial:
Reason No. 1 – Bungled Charges. It is hard to win on any case when the legal claims aren’t the right ones that should have been brought. The Zimmerman prosecution team charged Zimmerman with second-degree felony murder. In Florida, to prove murder, Prosecutors had to show that Zimmerman killed Trayvon “knowingly” or “recklessly” – meaning that he knew that what he was doing would result in Trayvon’s death, or should have known, but disregarded the risk. First-degree murder is “premeditated,” or “planned” murder. Second-degree murder does not require planning, but knowledge that the actions taken will result in death of another. As evident from the considerable amount of information gathered on the crime since it occurred, the killing appeared to be accidental – not premeditated, planned, knowing, or even “reckless.” From all accounts, the shooting probably resulted after Zimmerman pursued Trayvon with a loaded firearm, resulting in a fight that started when Trayvon confronted him. The fight appeared to have escalated, and Zimmerman, for unknown, likely panicked, purportedly believing his “life was in danger,” and then shot Trayvon. Zimmerman maintained the shooting was in self-defense. This was clearly an accidental death – but a death no less. What Prosecutors should have charged Zimmerman with was “Manslaughter with Culpable Negligence” – a unique crime in Florida that occurs when an individual is “culpably negligent” resulting in the death of another. Carrying a gun in a quiet suburban neighborhood stalking teenagers wearing a hoodie was irresponsible and negligent. Continuing to stalk the teenager after being told by police dispatch not to was negligent. Starting a fight with an unarmed teenager was negligent, and shooting a weapon at an unarmed teenager was negligent. Why the Prosecution did not prosecute Zimmerman for an involuntary manslaughter, rather than murder, we may never know. The Judge, although allowing the jury to consider voluntary manslaughter as a lesser charge, did not allow the jurors to consider involuntary manslaughter.
Reason No. 2 – Wrong Jury Instructions. Because a far more difficult-to-prove crime had been brought against Zimmerman than what actually supported by the facts, the jury instructions given to the jury were equally incorrect in reflecting what probably happened that night. The jurors were instructed that, in order to find Zimmerman guilty of second-degree murder, they had to find that he acted “with a depraved mind and regard for human life” and “done from ill will, hatred, spite, or evil intent, or “an indifference to human life.” If the death was accidental and resulting from an escalated fight gone wrong, none of these things could ever have been proven, because obviously, neither Zimmerman nor Trayvon intended hurt anyone that night. It is thus not surprising that the jury acquitted Zimmerman of second degree murder. To prove manslaughter, they had to find that he had an “intent to cause death” – again, something that was not supported by the evidence. The problem is that bringing a firearm into a fight necessarily turns a fight into a case of life or death, with both parties involved in the fight believing that if they do not defend themselves or escape, they could be killed – and that was a doing of Zimmerman’s creation.
Reason No. 3 – Prosecution Case Way Too Long. Another mistake that contributed to the breakdown of the jury verdict in the Zimmerman trial was the sheer length of the prosecution’s case. Long speeches and presentations, by their nature, tend to be unfocused, causing those subjected to them to lose focus. The average individual has an attention span of 15 minutes. In the Zimmerman trial, the prosecution’s case involved 39 witnesses over a span of 9 days, which is roughly 4 – 5 witnesses per day – a huge number of witnesses per day and in total, making it difficult for anyone to keep track of testimony. In the average trial, it is extremely easy to lose focus of who said what, and what matters among each witness’s testimony. Even after just 3 or 4 witnesses, testimonies all seem to blend together. For the defense, however, it was half that -- 18 witnesses over 4 days. There were much fewer stories to keep track of, with far fewer days drawn out over the course of the defense’s case. As with all things, too much background noise drowns out the testimony that really matters. The prosecution should have spent far greater time focusing its case on the facts that were truly significant or witnesses that offered truly compelling testimony. In the legal world, a successful prosecution usually occurs through 3 – 4 key blows, not death by a thousand cuts. Too many witnesses with too many facts can sometimes lead jurors or a Court to believe that the real smoking-gun facts or evidence simply does not exist. They were right – in this case, it didn’t. Many individuals and families across America were left, at the end of the trial, feeling as though there was not much discovered in the near 18 months since the accident than what was known immediately.
Reason No. 4 – Too Many Unhelpful Witnesses. The Prosecution not only drowned out important facts by presenting too many of them, there were too many witnesses, some of which were barely helpful, others of which were actually unhelpful to the case. Rather than providing key details about what transpired between Zimmerman and Trayvon, the Prosecution’s “star” witness Rachel Jeantel, the last person to have communicated with Trayvon on his cell phone with him when the alteration with Zimmerman occurred, apparently left both jurors and the public significantly underwhelmed, and slightly offended. Then there was the “changing testimony” of the medical examiner, Dr. Shiping Bao, whose testimony served as another distraction after it was revealed he changed his opinions but failed to tell the prosecution. Again, too many witnesses can de-rail a strong case. Successful cases often have three or four themes, at the most, that are supported by several key witnesses. Superfluous witnesses that are pushed on stage and then walked across off too quickly, offering little useful testimony, can serve as an unhelpful distraction.
Reason No. 5 – Short-Sighted Closing Arguments. The closing arguments in the Zimmerman case were equally off-mark. The prosecutor, though obviously seasoned and passionate about the case, focused too much on Zimmerman killing Martin “because he wanted to” or the details about Zimmerman’s intent to commit murder. It is very hard to prove intent – in any case. Without actual hard evidence proving that Zimmerman intended to kill Trayvon, any murder charge was doomed from the get-go. The closing arguments should have focused on the big-picture principles: that it is socially unacceptable to allow an armed man to pick a fight with an unarmed teenager, shoot him dead, and then claim it was done in self-defense. Not only was Zimmerman’s position not actually believable, it shouldn’t be believable because it should not be acceptable in our society to initiate a physically violent altercation, and contribute to the commission of a killing that occurs as a result, and then somehow entirely avoid accountability for those acts.
* * *
The Zimmerman verdict is another sad case of law-gone-wrong. It has made families across the nation question whether the justice system is broken, whether juries actually come to the correct conclusions, and whether racism still exists, albeit, unconsciously, in today’s society. For lawyers, there is nothing worse than losing a case. Worse than feeling as though Atlas has shrugged, you feel that you have let down people who have counted on you to bring justice into an unjust world and unfair circumstances. In this case, Zimmerman’s actions were morally, vehemently, and indisputably repugnant. No set of laws, rules, or statutes should support his actions. There is no sense in assigning blame to the jurors, who, by every account, did their best to bring sense to a senseless and unjustified killing. The only logical explanation that exists for the breakdown is one of case presentation. For Zimmerman, in the end, the prosecution simply could not make the case it brought against him.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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