Viewpoint: Was Zimmerman Telling the Truth?

The jury did their job based on what they had. The tragedy is that what they had may have been based on a lie

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Joe Burbank / Getty Images

George Zimmerman sits in Seminole circuit court in Sanford, Fla., on July 10, 2013

To many people, it is repulsive that Florida’s definition of self-defense made a “not guilty” verdict for George Zimmerman possible. However, not so long ago, many black people were comfortable refusing to allow that O.J. Simpson was a murderer based on hairs slightly out of place in the prosecution’s case. They almost excessively understood the concept of reasonable doubt. It shouldn’t be too hard to understand the jury’s decision here on the same basis.

(MORE: The Lessons of George Zimmerman’s ‘Not Guilty’ Verdict)

But we still will never know the truth about this key question: Who instigated the scuffle that led Zimmerman to pull out his gun? According to the taped account Zimmerman gave to police that was played in court, after just following Trayvon Martin some, Zimmerman was on his way back to his car when Martin popped up and sucker punched him, soon saying “You’re gonna die tonight.” Along those lines, a verdict that Zimmerman fired in justifiable self-defense makes what anybody could see as at least the beginning of sense. But I think that Zimmerman almost certainly lied about this. I think it for three reasons.

One: Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel recounted Martin’s describing a verbal encounter, with Martin asking Zimmerman why he was following him, Zimmerman asking why he was there, and Martin soon saying “Get off, get off.” Jeantel, although linguistically coherent, was not the most gracious interviewee — but her account of this exchange was straightforward.

(MORE: Rachel Jeantel Explained, Linguistically)

Two: For all the coverage of Jeantel’s dissimulations designed to keep herself out of the spotlight, Zimmerman himself has lied repeatedly — about his finances and about not knowing about Florida’s “Stand your ground” law when he had taken a criminal-law course that treated it extensively.

Three: His version simply doesn’t make human sense. Being followed makes Martin so angry he jumps the man and tries to beat him to a pulp? Concocted for a novel, play or film, such a scene would be ridiculed as hopelessly contrived. It sounds like something a desperate, unimaginative man makes up to keep himself out of prison.

However, anybody who thinks it was the jury’s job to base a verdict on guesswork misunderstands how law and close reasoning work. The jury did their job with what they had. The tragedy is that what they had may have been based on a lie.

MORE: 10 Twitter Reactions to the Verdict