The Lessons of George Zimmerman’s ‘Not Guilty’ Verdict

Criminal trials are not very good at deciding whether a defendant is actually innocent — or whether racial profiling is a problem in our country

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The jury’s “not guilty” verdict in the George Zimmerman case sent a strong message: that we expect too much of jury verdicts. In high-profile trials like this one, in which the public is sharply divided over whether the defendant is a hero or a villain, we look to jurors to be modern-day oracles — settling the debate definitively, and leaving us enlightened as a nation. Instead, all we got was the jury’s terse decision that the prosecutors had not proved Zimmerman guilty of murder or manslaughter beyond a reasonable doubt.

Zimmerman’s family greeted the jury’s verdict as a full-on vindication. His brother insisted in a CNN interview that it meant that Zimmerman was “innocent,” not merely “not guilty.” The NAACP, for its part, said the acquittal meant that “justice failed.” That is not a debate that is likely to resolve itself anytime soon. In the end, however, the Zimmerman verdict offers up two important lessons: that criminal trials are not very good at deciding whether a defendant is actually innocent; and that they are equally bad at helping us to resolve the larger issues raised by a case.

(MORE: Preparing for Riots After Zimmerman Verdict Is Racial Fearmongering)

From the moment Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, in a gated community in Sanford, Fla., the encounter has been a lightning rod. The first big battle was over whether Zimmerman, a neighborhood-watch volunteer, should stand trial at all. The authorities did not arrest him until 45 days after the shooting — after the Martin family applied pressure and hundreds of thousands of people signed a Change.org petition.

Two warring narratives quickly emerged. To Martin’s sympathizers, the shooting represented everything that is wrong with race relations in 21st century America. They saw an innocent young man who was simply going out for an evening snack run. In their view, the case reflected the racial profiling and risk of violence that young black men face every day in America.

To Zimmerman’s supporters, it was a clear-cut case of self-defense. They said Zimmerman had every right to approach someone who appeared to be acting suspiciously near his home. And they pointed to the fact that Martin had been suspended from school three times, among other demerits, as evidence that he needed watching. They insisted that Zimmerman reasonably believed he was at risk of serious bodily harm — which, under Florida law, gave him the right to use deadly force in self-defense.

(MORE: Just Because Zimmerman Started It Doesn’t Mean He’s Guilty)

Both sides hoped the case would definitively resolve this debate, but as the trial went on, it became clear that it could not. Criminal trials are not journalism, which seeks to construct a who-what-when-where-why account. They are set up to answer a narrow question: whether the prosecution has proved a specific charge “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The trouble is, that is not a question anyone outside of the legal system wants answered. The debate raging across the country since last year — in schools, workplaces and bars — has not been, “Do you think the prosecution will be able to prove Zimmerman guilty beyond a reasonable doubt?” It has been, “Do you think Zimmerman murdered Martin?” There is a wide chasm between saying Zimmerman is not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, as the jury did, and saying he is innocent.

If the jury could not tell us what to think of Zimmerman, it had even less to say about the larger issues embedded in the case. Martin’s killing has served as a morality tale, wrapping in it questions of racial profiling, self-defense and gun ownership. But the fact that Zimmerman was found not guilty does not mean young black men are not being racially profiled in large numbers — any more than a conviction would have meant that they are. It does not mean we need more guns — or fewer guns. It does not mean self-defense laws need to be changed — or that they do not.

And therein lies the real takeaway of the Zimmerman case: it is telling us as clearly as it can that for all these months, we have been paying too much attention to it. Like a badly prepared teacher who is overly reliant on in-class movies, we use glitzy trials to raise obliquely things that we should be talking about directly.

Are young black men being racially profiled? Are there too many guns in the hands of private citizens? Does the law give people too much leeway in using deadly force in self-defense? The Zimmerman trial was never going to answer any of those questions. But now that it is over, we should be able to find the time — and the right forum — to tackle them head-on.

954 comments
Kriegar
Kriegar

I disagree. I support the SYG law. I support self-defense, and I oppose racial profiling.


What I feel is the question at the very heart of the matter is this: Did Zimmerman's actions lead to the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old (of unstated race) who was unarmed, going to and from a store for candy?

 Did he provoke a situation which led to the shooting death of an unarmed 17 year old? Was Martin protected, or unprotected, by the SYG statute? And why was he not equally protected by that statute? Why, when the situation is reversed to Zimmerman, does it become a matter of SYG, or self-defense, that is not afforded Martin? Why does the race of Zimmerman fluctuate between being an issue, and then, an excuse or defense? If Zimmerman's racial status is citable, then why is Martins' not equally so? Why does being a minority mean that you cannot be biased, racist, or bigoted?

And finally, why does accosting someone, and then having that someone (maybe) assault you, exonerate you when you shoot them to death? Just as there are SPECIAL laws to convict minors, or make minors adults, there should equally be SPECIAL laws that address the negligent actions of those resulting in the deaths of a minor. It has been a tragedy, and a travesty-and all of the school suspensions in the world do not make it acceptable. All of the WWF or other entertainments enjoyed by the kid do not make it acceptable. In fact, there is nothing that is even relevant  except the incident, and exactly where it began and ended. If it were, then Zimmermans' past, and his deleted Facebook page, were equally relevant.

ludic_bear
ludic_bear

If G.Z. had shot a white boy. he'd b reported as Hispanic... just my $0.02

BobWadas
BobWadas

Zimmerman was innocent of breaking the law that they charged him with.

nikkigeraldo
nikkigeraldo

taking on an unarmed 17year old boy with a gun?hhmmm florida

NHThinker
NHThinker

You missed a question:  Should any teen be concerned about being shot dead if they try to beatdown a total stranger at night with no one else willing to come to either combatants aid?

There should be PSAs about beating down strangers just like there are PSAs on drunk driving and drug overdosing.  But no, the president and the media would rather paint Trayvon as a martyred innocent child saint to further the sensational and inaccurate racism story.

ludic_bear
ludic_bear

@NHThinker your point would be valid if you added, " when followed by and prevented from going about your lawful business by a total stranger, they may be a racist ass and shoot you so be meek and respectful. unless you have a gun then blaze away" 

the idea that because G.Z. walked away he must have had a good reason to shoot is laughable. while I agree he can't be proved guilty of the charges he was given, he could have been convicted of negligent homicide, manslaughter 3, or even child abuse. 

the court stating that the incident began when ever the first blow was struck is the real problem. If I follow you, harass you, and then you and I scuffle, so I shoot you dead, would your family or friends assume I was justified? that is the G.Z. conclusion, you can harass teens if you want, and shoot them if they get offended. 

GUEST123987
GUEST123987

@ludic_bear @NHThinker I follow you & ask you, "who are you & what are you doing here?" I'm within my legal rights(and should be). You start throwing punches at me & pin me to the ground, bashing my head in for asking you what your doing. Your starting the incident with assault & battery. I shoot you in self-defense. clear, cut & precise. Same reason the first prosecutor refused to take this to trial, there never was a case.

NHThinker
NHThinker

@ludic_bear@NHThinker "...when followed by and prevented from going about your lawful business by a total stranger..."

There is no believable EVIDENCE that that actually happened.

Not only did Zimmerman say Trayvon hit him first, but even Rachel  said she thought Trayvon hit first.

The pathologist's report clearly indicated that Martin was above Zimmerman when the shot occurred.

Pounding a stranger's head against concrete until they are screaming for their lives is a good recipe to have a decent shot at getting yourself killed if the stranger happens to be packing.  I want to see the PSA- might save some idiotic "invincible" teens that think they know better.


lucretius
lucretius

Let's talk about how the media is a bad place to try a case and discuss how they can demonize or canonize individuals through mere innuendo without responsibility.  

rockinreuben
rockinreuben

It is a shame how the media and Law Enforcement, under pressure from the NAACP and other fractions of the African/American community, are not only forced to "over cover" certain events, but put people on trial without a solid case. The Police Chief quit his job because of pressure from his boss (African/American). His boss (African/American) interferes with an on going Police investigation, but still has a job and no charges are filed by local Police or the State, why?

There were protest/marches before the trial and now after. The(African/American) community wanted justice, and when the trial doesn't end the way they wanted, more protest/marches.

Where were these (African/American) organizations when O.J. Simpson was acquitted, OH that's right he's (African/American).

Where were they when Casey Anthony was acquitted, OH that's right she's NOT African/American so DON'T CARE.

WAKE UP media and law enforcement as to who is controlling what. If you don't like the justice system in this great USA then get OUT.                                                        I am a Republician Floridian and I approve this message

WilfTarquin
WilfTarquin

@rockinreuben Sounds to me like it's you complaining about "who is controlling what", so take your own advice.

ludic_bear
ludic_bear

@rockinreuben you might find Iran more to your liking. I'd suggest Canada might be too liberal for you.

KarenLorentzson
KarenLorentzson

opps take all that war money and put towards education min wage jobs like I work are hard and lead you no where!

KarenLorentzson
KarenLorentzson

I would never live in florida but if did maybe wear a t shirt that says I am not a robber, car jacker, unarmed and on my way home! if we spent as much on war as on education maybe our world would be a better place.

trueyou2@yahoo.com
trueyou2@yahoo.com

Reasonable doubt. I doubted that George Zimmerman would be convicted for shooting Trayvon Martin in a state that can acquit Casey Anthony. I doubted that after the trial, civil rights activists and other pro-Trayvon supporters would accept the verdict and move on. Reasonable. Was it reasonable to continue following him after notifying the police? Was it reasonable to shoot an unarmed man during a scuffle? Was it reasonable to make this case more about race than about two people that made bad judgements during confrontation? Florida's 'Stand Your Ground' is too ambiguous and leaves the door wide open for any untrained cowboy to take matters into his/her own hands. Perhaps it needs more wording to avoid another incident like this. However, I reasonably doubt it.

DKB916
DKB916

You're absolutely correct - criminal trials are not journalism but, at the same time, JOURNALISM IS NOT JURISPRUDENCE either.  Criminal trials are based on facts (at least they're supposed to be) but, from day 1, Mr. Zimmerman was positively lambasted by the media as a racist thug who practically lynched a poor, young African-American boy on his way to church.  In fact, it was only after the trial began that CNN/Time-Warner and other so-called mainstream media companies begrudgingly acknowledged the facts, such as the fact that Mr. Zimmerman had been ambushed and actually had blood gushing from his nose and head when the police arrived which, as the jury determined, clearly demonstrates self-defense.  That being said, I'm sure the social conflict generated by your convoluted and mangled representation of the facts was nonetheless very good for CNN's ratings, which was clearly your primary motivation all along.  

WilfTarquin
WilfTarquin

@DKB916 You have an odd definition of "fact". Zimmerman wasn't ambushed, and that he had a nosebleed doesn't prove anything other than that he'd taken a minor hit to the nose.

RobinDonaldDeVallon
RobinDonaldDeVallon

@DKB916 ... him a minimum 230 pounder could not find another solution for subdueing his contender but grab for his legally concealedly weared loaded gun ?? I am no witness but I´m here to pòssibly help you get whitted enuff to understand what which when and first and foremost "why" one is dead and the other only had a bloody nose... from a scuffle....  Donah..//

ludic_bear
ludic_bear

@DKB916 you can get a nosebleed in a fight you start.... so that is idiotic. and his daddy is a layer so I bet the police are kind of flexible with poor little georgie boy.

RobinDonaldDeVallon
RobinDonaldDeVallon

It´s still a lot of bla bla bla... and we´re non the wiser.. We have Laws to abide by.... Who does ??... we have Laws to "protect us"... ´aver heard a bigger untruth ?? Oh yeah... we have a miitary so no one can harm us from the outside... Great..!! and we have trained police to prison any wrongdoers when caught... Great !! "When caught"..!!.... But we have no one to "protect"us... so we have our cunning self and a collection of guns to chose from for "protection".... we just have the flimsiest trained experience to use these properly (we go out in the desert... "practice" target shooting on self- brougt empty beer and juice cans).... !! AND we are Emericans... WE have the Constitutional Rights !! (no one upon this planet has... for GodSake).. That´s what we have and that´s our "protection".... Well.. you´re on your own... have a cigar... Donah..//