Law and Justice and George Zimmerman

[IMAGE DESCRIPTION]
Reuters

In the next few hours and days you'll likely be inundated with analysis and commentary and solemn expressions of outrage or joy about what the acquittal of George Zimmerman means -- to the nation, to its rule of law, to its politics, to its racial divide, to its deadly obsession with guns, to Florida's ALEC-infused justice system, and to probably 100 other things I can't list off the top of my head. This is what happens when a verdict comes down in a high-profile criminal trial -- when life or liberty are on the line and the country is split, and angrily so, upon the wisdom and the justice of the outcome.

To me, on its most basic level, the startling Zimmerman verdict -- and the case and trial that preceded it -- is above all a blunt reminder of the limitations of our justice system. Criminal trials are not searches for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. They never have been. Our rules of evidence and the Bill of Rights preclude it. Our trials are instead tests of only that limited evidence a judge declares fit to be shared with jurors, who in turn are then admonished daily, hourly even, not to look beyond the corners of what they've seen or heard in court.

Trials like the one we've all just witnessed in Florida can therefore never fully answer the larger societal questions they pose. They can never act as moral surrogates to resolve the national debates they trigger. In the end, they teach only what each of us as students are predisposed to learn. They provide no closure, not to the families or anyone else, even as they represent the close of one phase of the rest of the lives of the people involved. They are tiny slivers of the truth of the matter, the perspective as narrow as if you were staring at the horizon with blinders on, capable only of seeing what was not intentionally blocked from view.

Of course the deadly meeting last year between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman had at its core a racial element. Of course its tragic result reminds us that the nation, in ways too many of our leaders refuse to acknowledge, is still riven by race. The story of Martin and Zimmerman is the story of crime and punishment in America, and of racial disparities in capital sentencing, and in marijuana prosecutions, and in countless other things. But it wasn't Judge Debra Nelson's job to conduct a seminar on race relations in 2013. It wasn't her job to help America bridge its racial divide. It was her job to give Zimmerman a fair trial. And she did.

So the murder trial of George Zimmerman did not allow jurors to deliberate over the fairness of Florida's outlandishly broad self-defense laws. It did not allow them debate the virtues of the state's liberal gun laws or its evident tolerance for vigilantes (which we now politely call "neighborhood watch"). It did not permit them to delve into the racial profiling that Zimmerman may have engaged in or into the misconduct and mischief that Martin may have engaged in long before he took that fatal trip to the store for candy. These factors, these elements, part of the more complete picture of this tragedy, were off-limits to the ultimate decision-makers.

Advertisement

What the verdict says, to the astonishment of tens of millions of us, is that you can go looking for trouble in Florida, with a gun and a great deal of racial bias, and you can find that trouble, and you can act upon that trouble in a way that leaves a young man dead, and none of it guarantees that you will be convicted of a crime. But this curious result says as much about Florida's judicial and legislative sensibilities as it does about Zimmerman's conduct that night. This verdict would not have occurred in every state. It might not even have occurred in any other state. But it occurred here, a tragic confluence that leaves a young man's untimely death unrequited under state law. Don't like it? Lobby to change Florida's laws.

If we understand and accept these legal limitations -- and perhaps only if we do -- the result here makes sense. Purely as a matter of law, you could say, it makes perfect sense. Florida's material, admissible, relevant proof against Zimmerman was not strong enough to overcome the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The eye-witnesses (and ear-witnesses) did not present a uniformly compelling case against the defendant. The police witnesses, normally chalk for prosecutors, did not help as much as they typically do. Nor was there compelling physical evidence establishing that Zimmerman had murderous intent and was not acting in self-defense.

The case was "not about standing your ground; it was about staying in your car," the prosecutor cogently said during closing argument. But in the end, under state law favorable to men like the defendant -- that is, favorable to zealots willing to take the law into their own hands -- Zimmerman's series of deplorable choices that night did not amount to murderous intent or even the much more timid manslaughter. The defense here wisely understood that and was able consistently, methodically, to remind jurors that prosecutors had not adequately explained (or proved) how exactly the altercation started and how precisely it progressed.

Without a confession, without video proof, without a definitive eyewitness, without compelling scientific evidence, prosecutors needed to sell jurors cold on the idea of Zimmerman as the hunter and Martin as the hunted. But when the fated pair came together that night, in those fleeting moments before the fatal shot, the distinctions between predator and prey became jumbled. And prosecutors were never able to make it clear enough again to meet their burden of proof. That's the story of this trial. That explains this result. That's why some will believe to their own dying day that George Zimmerman has just gotten away with murder.

Maybe yes and maybe no. Technically speaking, the fact that Zimmerman now has been found not guilty under Florida law of the crimes of second-degree murder and manslaughter does not necessarily exonerate him in the world beyond the court. It does not mean that he is not culpable. This is and can never be a case where the defendant can proudly proclaim his innocence at some later date. But today's verdict, the unanimous result of six women who worked through their longest day to deliver the word, does mean that after 18 tortuous months, this tragic story now can move on to whatever comes next.

And what comes next, surely, is a wrongful death civil action for money damages brought against Zimmerman by the Martin family. That means another case, and perhaps another trial, with evidentiary rules that are more relaxed than the ones we've just seen. And that means that a few years from now, after Martin v. Zimmerman is concluded, we'll likely know more about what happened that night than we do today. That's the good news. The bad news is that no matter how many times Zimmerman is hauled into court, we will never know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about what happened that terrible night.

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus