As a former trial attorney, I rarely pay attention to the media circuses that surround major trials. I find the coverage of these trials exceedingly shallow and the reporting on what each side is and is not doing only slightly more enlightening than what passes for legal analysis on series like “CSI” and “Law and Order.” And I would have that kind of disinterest in the George Zimmerman trial were it not for the sociological backstory that is (let’s be honest) the reason it is getting as much coverage as it is.
Zimmerman is charged with second degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year old black victim who died when Zimmerman shot him in the chest at close range. That much detail is not disputed in the case. What is in dispute is whether Zimmerman was acting in self-defense when he killed Martin. If so, he would be legally justified for his act and would not be guilty of the homicide.
That’s the basic law that will be applied if the jury properly follows the instructions the judge will provide. But that kind of legal issue is the heart of many a homicide case. It hardly justifies the media coverage of this trial, nor my interest in it.
What makes this case interesting to me is the racial aspect of the case and the degree to which the politics around race are driving the media coverage, even as the actual trial is seemingly ignoring that subject. Martin was black; Zimmerman is the son of a white father; his mother is Peruvian (which also qualifies as white in terms of color, but can also be classified as Hispanic, depending on how ethnicities are defined). Zimmerman was either stalking Martin or checking out his actions pursuant to his self-appointed role as a neighborhood watch guard.
Those who believe Zimmerman should be held accountable for Martin’s death want to make much of his motivation in following Martin that night. Legally, it really doesn’t matter what his motivation was. Here’s why:
Murder requires malice as the state of mind of the killer. Malice is a general intent that can be satisfied in a number of ways. The most obvious is clear intent to kill. That kind of malice is required for first-degree murder, which is not what Zimmerman is charged with. Hence, the prosecutor has already implicitly dismissed the “stalking” motivation as a basis for securing a conviction.
Instead, the prosecution is trying to establish that Zimmerman was acting wantonly or recklessly in his interaction with Martin. That form of malice (you’re hearing it in the trial described as “depraved mind, hatred, evil intent or ill will) is satisfied by a showing that the defendant acted in reckless disregard of the consequences of his action, as when a killer pulls a trigger on a gun aimed at another person thinking it to be unloaded. That defendant can claim he didn’t intend to kill the victim, but he can still be found guilty of murder because he displayed wanton disregard for his actions (or acted recklessly).
So that’s the theory the prosecution is hoping to convince the jury of concerning Zimmerman’s mental state. But that burden is dwarfed by the much larger burden the prosecution faces in the case, which is to disprove that Zimmerman shot Martin in self-defense.
Self-defense is a valid defense if the action taken was necessary to save the individual’s life or to prevent serious injury. And if evidence is offered to establish it as a potential defense (as it has been in the Zimmerman trial), the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant’s act was not in response to that kind of threat.
The media has made much of Florida’s “stand your ground” law, a law that allows defendants to kill instead of retreating in the face of a violent attack. That law is controversial in the abstract, but, as the evidence has been presented in the Zimmerman trial, it really isn’t relevant in determining whether Zimmerman acted in self-defense. Zimmerman claims not that he didn’t retreat when he could have (“stand your ground”), but that he couldn’t retreat because of the beating he was receiving from Martin. And, he claims, because he was in fear of his life, he was justified in shooting Martin.
That claim may not be true, but Zimmerman’s attorneys don’t have to prove that it is. They just have to establish that a reasonable doubt exists that it isn’t true. In other words, having produced evidence (the broken nose, the lacerations on the back of the head, the screams for help that were allegedly Zimmerman’s screams and not Martin’s) that Martin was beating up Zimmerman, the burden shifts to the prosecution to establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Zimmerman was not reacting to that kind of a beating.
That burden is too great to overcome in this trial. Thus, Zimmerman will not be found guilty of second degree murder if the jury does its job correctly.
What Zimmerman may be guilty of is involuntary manslaughter, which is the crime that results from an imperfect exercise of self-defense. That charge would stand if a jury found that Zimmerman exceeded the amount of force necessary to repel Martin’s attack in shooting him in the chest. But to get a conviction for involuntary manslaughter, the prosecution must ask the judge to instruct the jury on it as a “lesser included” offense to the second-degree murder charge, and the judge must agree to give it (over what would surely be an objection by the defense).
What I have just provided is the legal analysis you should be hearing from the media. That you aren’t (on most of the coverage I’ve seen, at least) is the result of the racial aspects of the case that are really irrelevant to the actual trial but are apparently selling newspapers and attracting viewers nonetheless. And that fact is what makes this trial of interest to me. America has come a long way, but in the end, we are still consumed with racial attitudes that belie our noble aspirations.