Sunday, July 14, 2013

Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman and the demanding standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt"

I hope you are outraged that George Zimmerman ever confronted Trayvon Martin. As far as I can tell, he had no business following him, suspecting him of wrongdoing, or otherwise involving himself in the teenager's business. It's a godawful tragedy that the kid got killed. And yeah, there are racist overtones to the whole mess that ought to make you cringe.

As someone said somewhere, "I pray for a time when the George Zimmermans of the world offer the Trayvon Martins of the world a dry spot from the rain and a warm car ride home."

The whole thing sucks.

But I am not at all convinced that you should be outraged at the verdict that acquitted Zimmerman of murder or manslaughter.

Wait, what?

Yeah... let's discuss this rationally.

A law professor -- with a decidedly pro-prosecution bent to his thinking, by the way -- once told me: "You should think long and hard before you are *ever* outraged at a jury for an acquittal. It almost always means the jury did its job conscientiously and just found something missing in the prosecution's proofs."

Such is the lay of the land in a system of justice that demands the prosecution prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. So much do we (justifiably) fear incarcerating the innocent that the system is tilted heavily -- by means of such a high burden of proof -- in a way that means that we tolerate "mistakes" that result in acquittal much more than we tolerate unjust convictions. If the jury believes the defendant probably is guilty, he goes free.

Yeah, you read that right. "Probably guilty" isn't enough for a conviction. There are even defense attorneys who have boldly begun their final arguments to a jury with: "My client *might have* committed this crime...." and then moved into an extended exegesis on the subtleties of just what "*beyond* a reasonable doubt" really means. It's a very demanding standard of proof.

And self-defense (in most states, including Florida**) is no exception: once the defendant urges acquittal by reason of self-defense, and the judge instructs the jurors on that defense, it is the prosecution's burden to *disprove* the applicability of the defense.

In other words, if a jury is 100% positive the defendant killed someone, but is unsure whether the defendant acted justifiably under principles of self-defense, in Florida (and most states) the defendant goes home with an acquittal, just like in any other situation where the prosecution fails to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

So, yeah, the jury could have thought George Zimmerman: (a) killed Trayvon Martin, and (b) probably wasn't justified in doing so, and the proper verdict would have still been an acquittal. The system is set up so guilty verdicts only happen when the jury is convinced, beyond a reasonable doubt, of the defendant's guilt. In a self-defense case that means being convinced beyond any reasonable doubt that the defendant did *not* act in self-defense.

And the proofs in this case? I think it was a legitimately tough call between a conviction for one of the two homicide offenses and an acquittal. Zimmerman appears to have acted like an overly-confrontational rent-a-cop who baselessly suspected Martin of criminal intent. But then what happened? Did he approach Martin in a threatening manner with his gun drawn? Or did Martin throw the first punches unprovoked by any more than very harsh words? I have no idea. And what happened next? Unfortunately, I don't have any clear idea about that either.... And sure, I even have my strong suspicions that Zimmerman's bad behavior didn't end with initiating the encounter. But I really don't know.

And worst of all, the jury may not have had any better insight.

With eyewitness accounts either absent or conflicting on many critical details, I am unsurprised that they came back with a verdict that, in its purest form, is not a vindication of *anything* that George Zimmerman did that night; it's a simple "I don't know" or "I am just not sure" to the question "What happened?"

And, in a system where "probably guilty" is an acquittal, "I don't know" or "I'm just not sure" is too.

I hope Trayvon Martin's family finds peace. I can't begin to fathom their pain. And I hope the George Zimmermans of the world wise up and stop assuming the criminality of those who don't look like them. But in the meantime, while this crap is still going on, the burden of proof in a criminal trial is high for a good reason, and, as much as you can loathe what George Zimmerman did that night to start this encounter -- and despise the mindset that got him there -- think twice before you decry the verdict, or the jurors that rendered it. They were operating under a very stringent set of rules.

**By the way, a lot of ink, virtual and otherwise, was wasted in the press on the topic of so-called Stand Your Ground laws in Florida and other states, which loosen some of the rules applicable to self-defense in certain situations. A little-mentioned fact: George Zimmerman's defense team never invoked the Stand Your Ground doctrine. This case was tried under ordinary principles of self-defense, not Stand Your Ground.

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  1. First, Stand Your Ground was used not in the trial, but was the basis for initially letting him go without charging him. Had it not been for the public outcry, he never would have been arrested. Second, I think most of the outrage is (or at least should be) not so much at the jury decision, or the beyond a reasonable doubt idea, but at the reality that most Americans realize in the heart, if they are honest, at how differently this would have turned out if Zimmerman was black, and the victim was white (or minimally hispanic-looking who appeared to be white).

  2. The police chief said at the time that the decision not to arrest had nothing to do with SYG, just self-defense.

  3. And it is totally fair to be outraged that the verdict might be more unjust if the races were switched, but that is not a reason to question this verdict, which many have done.