In Zimmerman Post Mortems, Confusion Reigns

News coverage of the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman has been awful from the beginning. In fact, if it hadn’t been for false and misleading news stories, there likely never would have been a prosecution in the first place. The quality of commentary in the conventional press hasn’t improved much since the verdict exonerating Zimmerman came in last night.

For one thing, lots of commentators, especially on the left, are still talking about “stand your ground” laws. Ben Jealous, President of the NAACP, has vowed to campaign for repeal of such laws. But, as has been explained here and many other places, Florida’s stand your ground law played no part in the Zimmerman prosecution. Under traditional principles of self-defense, if you are threatened or assaulted somewhere other than in your home, you have to flee, if you can, rather than using deadly force in self-defense. That is the principle that is amended by stand your ground laws. Under such statutes, if you are attacked in a public place and you reasonably fear that you may be killed or incur great bodily injury, you don’t have to run away. You can stand your ground and fight back, including the use of deadly force.

This principle, obviously, comes into play only if you can run away. If you can’t retreat–if, like George Zimmerman, you are lying on your back with an adversary sitting on top of you and beating on you–you have always been entitled to use deadly force in self-defense, if you reasonably fear death or great bodily injury. Zimmerman’s lawyers did not invoke Florida’s stand your ground law. They did not rely on it; they did not argue it to the jury; they did not ask for a “stand your ground” pretrial hearing, which, in cases where the statute applies, can lead to dismissal of the charges against the defendant. There is no reason why anyone should ever mention Florida’s stand your ground law in connection with the Zimmerman case.

More generally, most post-trial commentary appears to be written by reporters who did not observe the trial and have made no effort to acquaint themselves with the evidence that was presented to the jury. The news stories that reach by far the largest number of readers are those authored by the Associated Press, so let’s consider this post mortem by AP reporter Mike Schneider. Schneider tries to explain the jury’s verdict, starting from the premise that it seems puzzling on its face:

Jurors who acquitted George Zimmerman of all charges were guided in their deliberations by 27 pages of jury instructions that included two sections giving them an option to find him not guilty: justifiable use of deadly force and reasonable doubt.

Actually, these are not alternative grounds for acquittal; reasonable doubt is merely the standard by which the government was required to prove its case.

The acquittal of the former neighborhood watch leader left many Americans wondering Sunday how the justice system could allow him to walk away from the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager whose death provoked a long national debate over racial profiling and self-defense.

Americans kept wondering this because the press abdicated its responsibility to explain, accurately and coherently, what was going on. Note that from the earliest accounts, Martin has consistently been described as “unarmed,” as though that somehow negated any need for self-defense. But of course it didn’t. A weapon is the means by which a smaller, weaker person who is less skilled in fighting can defend himself. Women are generally in this position, but men often need a weapon to defend themselves against an “unarmed” opponent, too. Trayvon Martin was four inches taller than Zimmerman, and considered himself an expert fighter. As far as the record shows, he was right.

But the essential criteria for deciding the case came from the court itself, which told jurors that Zimmerman was allowed to use deadly force when he shot the teen not only if he actually faced death or bodily harm, but also if he merely thought he did.

No. As the article correctly notes later on, Zimmerman had to reasonably believe that he was in danger of death or great bodily harm.

Some Martin family supporters may never understand the gap between the legal basis for the acquittal and what they perceived as the proper outcome: Zimmerman’s conviction for either second-degree murder or manslaughter.

“There is a difference between the law and what people think is fundamentally justice,” said Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a Washington-based civil rights group.

I doubt that. Everyone I know understands and approves of the concept of self-defense. The real “gap” is between the facts that came out in the courtroom, and the false impressions that most people had because of agenda-driven reporting. I am pretty sure that the vast majority of people who were surprised by the verdict had no idea that Martin was sitting on top of Zimmerman, punching him in the face and banging his head into the pavement, moments before, in desperation, Zimmerman shot him.

“Beyond a reasonable doubt” is the highest standard of proof prosecutors face in American criminal courts.

No: “Beyond a reasonable doubt” is the standard prosecutors always face in American criminal courts. And yet well over 90% of criminal trials end in convictions. The Zimmerman case was exceptional not because the burden of proof was high, but because the case was extraordinarily weak.

Jurors were also told that reasonable doubt about Zimmerman’s guilt could come from conflicting evidence or the lack of evidence. …
After calling police dispatchers, Zimmerman got out of his vehicle and followed Martin. He says Martin attacked him. Prosecutors disputed that. The evidence was unclear.

Actually, there was no evidence that Zimmerman started the fight. This was the gaping hole in the prosecution’s case. Zimmerman said that Martin laid in wait and jumped him. No witness claimed to have seen how the fight started, and no physical evidence was inconsistent with Zimmerman’s account. The evidence here wasn’t conflicting, it was 100% in Zimmerman’s favor.

None of Zimmerman’s neighbors saw or heard the entire fight, and eyewitnesses gave differing accounts of whether Zimmerman or Martin was on top.

This is deeply misleading. Only one witness, John Good, saw any part of the fight before the single shot was fired. He gave a statement immediately after the incident in which he described Trayvon Martin sitting on top of Zimmerman and beating his face. At trial, he used a mixed martial arts term–”ground and pound”–to describe what Martin was doing to Zimmerman. One witness, Selma Mora, testified that after she heard the shot fired, she looked out and saw Zimmerman “on top.” But that testimony was entirely consistent with Zimmerman’s account; he said that after he shot Martin, “I slid out from underneath him and got on top of the suspect holding his hands away from his body.”

Further, the Associated Press never mentions the physical evidence that makes it blindingly obvious that Zimmerman’s story, that he was on the bottom and was taking a severe beating, was true. Zimmerman’s nose was bloody and likely broken, and there were a half dozen straight-line wounds to the back of his head that were consistent with having his head pounded repeatedly into the pavement. How do those who profess to be shocked by the verdict think Zimmerman sustained those injuries?

While it offers a distorted version of both the events of February 26, 2012 and of the applicable law, the AP does get one thing right: there is no basis for the federal government to try for a mulligan:

[F]ederal law probably doesn’t apply, said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami. Unlike the police officers in the King case, Zimmerman wasn’t acting “under color of law.”

There also is little basis to charge Zimmerman with a federal hate crime, Weinstein said, since prosecutors would have to show that he shot and killed Martin primarily because of the teen’s race. Nothing in the state trial suggested it was a racially motivated crime, he said.

“Under the law, there is no basis for them to file any charges,” Weinstein said about the Department of Justice.

I would add that the jury found that Zimmerman acted in lawful self-defense, which would equally be a defense to any federal charge that might be brought.

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