In writing about the George Zimmerman trial on Tuesday, I said:
I confess that I find much of the commentary on the Zimmerman case, and even a good bit of the evidence, mystifying. There is no question that Zimmerman shot Martin; he claims self-defense. That defense raises a straightforward question of fact. All of the nonsense about whether Zimmerman was a “wannabe cop,” and whether he “profiled” Martin, and whether he was or was not a “racist,” is utterly beside the point.
That is certainly true as to the issue of self-defense. However, Andrew Branca, a criminal law expert who is covering the trial for Legal Insurrection, wrote to say that I had overstated the point. There is a reason–although, in my opinion, not a good one–for the prosecution’s dragging race into the case:
Actually, those elements are being pursued by the State for a good reason–they are essential to the State’s ability to prove the “depraved mind” necessary for a murder 2 conviction, which is what the State is pursuing (however foolishly) against Zimmerman.
There are three major buckets of killing crimes, each with various degrees. Murder involves premeditation to kill or, in Florida, a “depraved mind”. Voluntary manslaughter involves the intentional use of force against another, and that person dies. Involuntary manslaughter involves a criminally reckless act (but no intent to kill or even use force against another) that results in a person’s death–think drunk driving. For all of these the State must prove each and every element of the charge beyond a reasonable doubt.
Self-defense is an absolute justification for the killing of another (assuming you meet all the requirements of the law of self defense), and in most States (Ohio is the only exception) the State must DISPROVE self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.
In order to prove the second degree murder charge the State brought against Zimmerman they must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he acted with a depraved mind. To get to a depraved mind they need to show some kind of hatred or ill-will. In most murder 2 cases the people know each other and have a long history of animus, which is the source of the “depraved mind”. Here Martin and Zimmerman did not know each other, so the State is forced to pursue some more generalized hatred–such as racism.
Fortunately, there’s no evidence of such, so they’re flailing. I don’t believe they have the slightest hope of proving murder 2.
Proving manslaughter, however, is pretty straightforward–did Zimmerman use force on Martin? Yes. Did Martin die? Yes. Simple. No need to prove a depraved mind, so no need to prove hatred or ill will, racism, whatever.
But that’s where the self-defense comes in. Even if the state can prove the elements of manslaughter beyond a reasonable doubt (and I think they can), they now have to disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.
So if the state had only charged Zimmerman with manslaughter, none of the talk about Zimmerman’s racial attitudes, etc., would be admissible. But the state wants a second-degree murder conviction, and that requires proof of a “depraved mind.” I fault the prosecutors for dragging race into their case merely because they wanted to over-charge the defendant. Local authorities originally declined to prosecute Zimmerman because strong evidence supported his claim that he acted in self-defense. It was only after the case became a political cause-celebre that a special prosecutor was appointed, and made what was essentially a political decision to charge Zimmerman. The prosecution’s effort to exploit the race angle is consistent with the political nature of the prosecution, but is an injustice to the defendant.