I’m not going to bother to recap the events of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case at this point in time. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox have all been doing that ad nauseum lately. What I am going to do is just to express my thoughts on the case, something I’ve been reluctant to do thus far because….
Well, let’s face it. Because I know that any time a case like this comes up, I tend to end up looking and/or sounding like a heartless SOB.
First, please let me be clear about something. I agree that what happened in February of 2012 was a tragedy. I agree that it didn’t have to happen. I agree that it was a senseless mistake on everybody’s part.
But it wasn’t a crime that could ever be brought successfully to trial under the standards set forth by the U.S. justice system. Not because the system is flawed, but because it is a system that is ultimately based on the precept that people should not be convicted of crimes they haven’t committed. For such a system to work, it requires a handful of basic assumptions:
- You are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
- Such proof must be beyond a reasonable doubt.
- The Blackstone Principle, which states that “It is better that ten guilty men go free than that one innocent man be convicted.”
What this all means, lest I be written off as using cliches to make my argument, is that regardless of what the media tells us, regardless of what we read on blogs, or see in the paper, or read in petitions to see George Zimmerman tried for X charge, when the trial starts… it’s supposed to be a blank slate.
That is the requirement of our legal system.
From that blank slate, the prosecution is allowed to lay out evidence of its course of events.
Then, the defense is allowed to lay out evidence of its course of events, or at least contradicting the prosecution’s.
Finally, if they want, the prosecution is allowed to try and shoot down the defense’s case. At this point, based solely on the massive amounts of information that have been thrown at them, the jury (or judge, if the right to a jury trial is waived) retire to discuss the evidence and try to come to a consensus on what the truth is.
But, here’s the thing. There’s a bias there. They must assume that the defendant is innocent unless they believe that the evidence they have seen proves that the defendant is guilty to the point that no reasonable person would doubt it. That’s how our system is supposed to work. Does it always work that way? Nope. Does it usually work that way? Eh, that’s debatable, and unrelated to this case. Unfortunately, there’s that whole “human fallibility” thing going on that muddies the waters.
And the Zimmerman case was not proven to that level. Hell, from the evidence that was presented, I literally do not believe it could have been presented to that level, which is why the police didn’t press charges at the start.
Here’s the thing. At least in my opinion (and I’m not a lawyer, though from what I’ve found out from friends who are, a disgusting amount of being a lawyer is how to break the rules without getting called on it), in order to establish a conviction, you have to build a foundation of facts that support the case. Not opinions.
I hate eyewitness testimony for this precise reason. Eyewitness accounts are inherently subjective and based on opinion; they’re based on snap judgments made in the heat of seeing something unusual, and often in non-ideal conditions (adrenaline, the subjects moving rapidly, lots of distractions, etc.) Studies have shown that eyewitness testimony is only somewhere around 60% at best. Why does this matter?
We’ve got three eyewitnesses, four if you count Zimmerman. Two of the eyewitnesses are actually audio (ear-witnesses?). One was a lady who lived nearby. She claims she saw heard two men fighting on the ground; a young man, and an angry older man. When she went to call 911, she heard one of them screaming for help. She believed it was “the young man’s voice.”
Now, I’ve actually seen and conducted experiments where people asked to identify a voice, only by voice, can only do so about 20% of the time. And that’s when they’re just talking, not screaming, which tends to change your tone of voice from whatever it was when you were shouting at somebody, to something more scared and pleading.
There is also the very important element of context. If you hear two voices, one higher pitched and not shouting, and the other deeper and shouting angrily, and then you hear a scream for help… your brain tends to fill in the gaps. You’ll be more inclined to think “that must be the not-angry voice, because angry-voice is the one they need help against. Angry voice wouldn’t be screaming for help, he started it.”
Then we have Trayvon’s friend, who was talking to him on the phone. We’ll get to her later.
Our actual eye-witness saw two men fighting; one of them was straddling the other, and looked to be punching him in the face. He believed that it was the dark-skinned man who was on top.
Trayvon’s friend gives us the following information: Trayvon thought Zimmerman was a creepy pervert who was following him around. When they hung up, Trayvon was supposedly in front of his house, which she told him to go into and call the cops on the creepy pervert. Four minutes later, Trayvon calls her again, about to be confronted by Zimmerman several blocks from his home, There’s an altercation, during which we hear… well, frankly, what we hear isn’t very clear. That’s why the prosecution wasn’t allowed to bring in their audio experts; the experts couldn’t isolate a long enough segment to meet the court’s standards for scientific evidence. There are all sorts of opinions about who was screaming for help on that call, but no expert evidence… associates of Martin say it was him, and associates of Zimmerman say it was him. The problem is that several of these witnesses are on shaky grounds, and all are being asked to identify cries of help in a situation where one of their loved ones would either end up dead, or end up beaten.
In addition, there was a lot of debate about whether or not Zimmerman was an MMA expert or not, and other related issues. All things that were argued back and forth. I’m more interested in what wasn’t argued.
The scientific evidence in this case is a bit more revealing, potentially. I wasn’t in the courtroom, so I did not see all of the evidence. Neither did I see all of the people testifying. However, here are the facts that neither side disputed and, so, I see them as being the fact that are the most ‘solid,’ since if either side felt they could be successfully disputed, they probably would be. Therefore, these aren’t matters of opinion, and if you believe the person or not. They’re matters of “this happened, this didn’t.”
- Trayvon Martin was shot, front-to-back, at a 90 degree angle. The gun was far enough away that there were no powder burns on him, but there were on his clothing. This means he was shot at, probably, somewhere between 2-6 inches from the barrel of the gun.
- Martin’s body was found face down at the scene; there was no evidence that his body was moved or turned over.
- There were no significant injuries to Martin’s body besides the gun shot.
- There was no evidence that the bullet, on passing through Martin’s body, struck anything like the pavement.
- Zimmerman’s DNA was not identified on Martin’s hands.
- Zimmerman’s face had been bludgeoned multiple times. There were lacerations on the top and back of his head as well, which were consistent with striking the concrete.
- Zimmerman’s injuries were not consistent with being “slammed” into the concrete WWE style or anything like that, but they were consistent with blows to the head that resulted from, say, being punched in the face and his head swinging back. (Whatever laws Zimmerman may have broken, Newton’s weren’t among them.)
- Zimmerman’s version of events is deeply flawed, and has changed multiple times. In particular, his version of how the fight started is at odds with what’s on the phone call.
I like undisputed facts. They’re the sort of thing you ought to be basing a conviction off of, because they’re things that you don’t have to worry as much about the human fallibility factor with. There weren’t a huge number of them, but I think the ones that we have are critical to this case, and how it resolves.
Zimmerman’s version of events, at the beginning, is deeply flawed. However, this is irrelevant to the legal matter at hand. The legal matter at hand is whether or not, when he pulled the trigger, Zimmerman reasonably feared for his life.
Here’s the problem. What happens up to the point when the gun is drawn and the trigger pulled doesn’t matter for this case, because the question of self-defense is whether or not drawing that gun and pulling the trigger was justified. Which begs the question of whether or not Zimmerman was being punched in the face and suffering subsequent blows to the back of his head from the concrete.
The smoking gun, pun not intended, for those who argue that this was murder is ultimately that there was no DNA on Martin’s hands. If Martin had been punching Zimmerman in the face, then there would have been blood on his hands if he’d broken Zimmerman’s nose. There was no DNA or blood. Ipso facto, Martin wasn’t punching Zimmerman in the face, and Zimmerman must have suffered those injures in some other way.
The problem is that the physics don’t necessarily work that way. Particularly if the blow that broke Zimmerman’s nose was nearly the last one, not the first, the blood may well not have been where Martin was punching. I don’t know how many of you have had bad nosebleeds before, but I have. When your head is tipped back – say, when you’re laying flat on your back – the blood tends to drain back through your sinuses and down your throat. That would contain most of it, and the rest would be around Zimmerman’s mouth, while most of the injuries were around the upper portions of his face.
Also, bear in mind that Zimmerman was the one who was injured, not Martin. This supports our eye-witness from before, not in that “the dark skinned guy” was on top, but in that somebody had facial injuries. Whoever was on top, according to him, was punching the other guy in the face repeatedly. That would have left injuries on Martin that didn’t exist if Zimmerman had been the one on top.
Therefore, the evidence supports that Zimmerman was the one on the bottom, and there is a reasonable explanation for why Martin wouldn’t have had blood on his fists.
This also explains the lacerations on the back and top of Zimmerman’s head.
Given these facts, the prosecution actually had to change their story mid-trial. Now, Zimmerman wasn’t beating Martin until he, in a rage, pulled his gun and shot the kid. Now, Martin was finished beating Zimmerman and getting off of him when Zimmerman pulled his gun and fired. Let’s leave aside the fact that Zimmerman’s changing stories – stories that changed, probably, because he honestly didn’t know what the Hell was happening while he was being beaten – prove his guilt, while apparently the prosecution’s changing stories – that changed because the evidence blatantly didn’t support them – is perfectly acceptable to those who believe Zimmerman guilty of murder.
The fact is that you’re asking a jury to decide if they can say, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a reasonable individual who has just been punched in the face repeatedly and had his nose broken would not believe his life was in danger. Even if Martin were getting off of him (a movement that is also, by the way, consistent with the ‘oh shit, he’s got a gun!’ reaction, not just with getting off of Zimmerman because he was satisfied that the fight was over), would the reasonable response be to think “oh, he’s done punching me, yay! I can go put some ice on this!”
Or to think “oh shit, what’s he going to do to me now?”
At this point, the gun is drawn, and the trigger pulled. And, were I on that jury, I would need a Hell of a lot of *good* evidence to prove that Zimmerman wasn’t thinking “oh shit, what now?” rather than “I’m gonna kill that punk!”
In order to convict Zimmerman, that is what you have to believe. That no reasonable person would have thought they were about to be killed in that situation, intentionally or otherwise.
It doesn’t matter if Zimmerman followed Martin; he had just as much right to be walking around that neighborhood as Martin did. If he’d stayed in his car, like the operator told him to, it wouldn’t have happened. But by the same token, if Martin had gone into his house, like his friend told him to… it wouldn’t have happened.
Zimmerman believed that Martin might have been one of the people conducting a rash of B&E’s lately. Martin believed that Zimmerman was a creepy pervert who wanted to kidnap him. On the second call we hear Zimmerman (presumably) belligerently asking Martin “what are you doing around here?” Martin doesn’t respond with “My Dad lives down the street, I’m walking home.” We can’t really tell what his response is. If Zimmerman threw the first punch, then there’s a possible case for manslaughter. But then, why weren’t there signs that Martin had been struck?
Maybe Zimmerman threw the first punch and missed?
But now you’re doing something that jurors are not allowed to do; you’re making the facts fit the case, not the case fit the facts.
The undisputed evidence supports both men ignoring good advice that would have avoided a confrontation. A fight started, and absent strong evidence of who started it, we have to dismiss that question. During the course of that fight, the evidence supports Martin getting the upper hand, and beginning to beat Zimmerman’s face, consequently making his head strike the cement sidewalk. Zimmerman, for whatever reason, pulls his gun and shoots Martin, fatally. Absent strong evidence that such a belief would be ridiculous, the jury has to assume that Zimmerman’s stated fear that his life was in danger was fundamentally true.
Because in our system of justice, Zimmerman is innocent until the prosecution proves otherwise. Not until the media proves it. Not until Martin’s grieving family stops believing it. But until the prosecution proves what was in his heart.
In order to argue that this was murder, you have to argue that Zimmerman killed Martin out of spite, hatred, or anger, rather than a reasonable fear for his life. Which means that you have to argue that Martin was not the one who was on top of Zimmerman and beating his face at the moment Zimmerman pulled his gun.
Nobody saw that happen, and there is no conclusive evidence to the contrary. As a matter of fact, all the evidence except for one piece supports Zimmerman’s story, and that one piece does not conclusively disprove the rest.
Ergo, this wasn’t murder.
In order to argue that this was even manslaughter, I believe that you would have to prove that Zimmerman threw the first punch. And, again, there is nothing that conclusively proves that.
Ergo… legally, this wasn’t manslaughter.
Do I believe it may have been?
Yes, it may have been. But I don’t have enough proof of who threw that first punch to say that there is no reasonable doubt. And there isn’t enough evidence to say that the first punch wasn’t thrown justifiably. Given how most fistfights start, it was a rapid escalation of force from the point where Zimmerman shouts, to one of them pushes the other, to one of them punching the other. With no proof of who it was that did anything except shouting.
When somebody’s shouting at you, there is a perfectly reasonable response to that. You answer them. If somebody comes up, screaming “what are you doing around here,” you tell them. That ends the confrontation without a fight. It makes them look like an idiot, and maybe it escalates because they don’t let it drop back down.
But how can you say that there is no reasonable doubt that that is what happened?
And, in order to convict Zimmerman of even the mildest charge leveled against him… that’s what you have to prove happened.
No matter if Zimmerman was 29, 19, or 9. No matter if he was hispanic, white, asian, or black himself. No matter if Martin was black, white, or another hispanic. No matter if he was 17, 7, or 27.
If Martin had been the one carrying a legal firearm, who pulled it and fired in the course of a fistfight with somebody he believed was a potential kidnapper, I would say the verdict should have come out the same way. Would it have?
That’s a question about the other flaws in our legal system, and for another post.
But this isn’t a travesty of justice. It’s not proof that our legal system is broken. It’s not proof of deeply ingrained racism in America that makes it okay to gun down an unarmed black child if you’re an armed white man. It’s not sending a message that you can stalk and murder black children and just call it self-defense.
These are all things that I’ve heard this verdict called, and it’s not any of them.
It’s proof that, sometimes, the jury can come to the only verdict that makes logical sense when held to the incredibly high standards of a criminal conviction.
This was a tragedy, no argument there. One person already paid for it with his life. George Zimmerman has paid for it with the fact that he’s going to have to spend the rest of his life worrying about whether or not somebody might decide that they need to “self-defend” against him.
Did this have to happen? No. Whose fault was it that it happened? Zimmerman’s fault for not staying in his car? Martin’s fault for not getting in his house? Zimmerman’s fault for bringing his gun? Martin’s fault for not attempting to de-escalate the confrontation?
Maybe it was the fault of both. Maybe it was the fault of a society that needs to have somebody to blame for anything that goes wrong. Maybe it was the fault of whoever conducted those B&E’s for creating an atmosphere where Zimmerman was looking for anybody who had the least sign of maybe being a criminal. Maybe it was the fault of a society that stratifies itself in such a way that people feel the desire to commit crimes to get ahead, rather than to acknowledge that their victims are just as human as they are.
Maybe it was nobody’s fault; random chance and statistics combining to create a perfect storm of events that resulted in a senseless, meaningless tragedy. B&E’s here that put Zimmerman on edge, horror stories about kidnappers there that put Martin on edge.
Chaos and butterflies, cooking up another way to polarize our society, to inject a little more entropy into the human condition.
We have laws in an attempt to hold back chaos and butterflies. And our society decided long ago that, in order to inflict the least harm to the innocent, it was best to set high standards that justice demands must be met in order to mete out punishment.
This was a tragedy.
But tragedy isn’t against the law.