SANFORD – Jurors who acquitted George Zimmerman of all charges were guided in their deliberations by 27 pages of jury instructions that included two sections giving them an option to find him not guilty: justifiable use of deadly force and reasonable doubt.
The acquittal of the former neighborhood watch leader left many Americans wondering Sunday how the justice system could allow him to walk away from the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager whose death provoked a long national debate over racial profiling and self-defense.
But the essential criteria for deciding the case came from the court itself, which told jurors that Zimmerman was allowed to use deadly force when he shot the teen not only if he actually faced death or bodily harm but also if he merely thought he did. And jurors heard plenty of conflicting evidence and testimony that could have created reasonable doubt.
Some Martin family supporters may never understand the gap between the legal basis for the acquittal and what they perceived would have been the proper outcome:
Zimmerman’s conviction for either second-degree murder or manslaughter.
“There is a difference between the law and what people think is fundamentally justice,” said Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a Washington-based civil rights group.
One of those Martin supporters who had a hard time accepting the decision was Tara Banks, a 46-year-old black woman from Gainesville, who said the verdict was causing her to lose faith in the courts.
“He killed a human being and he walked away from that courthouse scot free. It’s just terrible,” Banks said at a small rally near the courthouse where Zimmerman was tried.
Under Florida law, jurors were told to decide whether Zimmerman was justified in using deadly force by the circumstances he was under when he fired his gun. The instructions they were given said they should take into account the physical capabilities of both Zimmerman, 29, and Trayvon, 17. And if they had any reasonable doubt on whether Zimmerman was justified in using deadly force, they should find him not guilty.
“Beyond a reasonable doubt” is the highest standard of proof prosecutors face in American criminal courts. It means the jurors believe there is no other logical explanation for what happened than the defendant is guilty. If faced with two plausible explanations for what happened, jurors are supposed to acquit.
“The danger facing George Zimmerman need not have been actual; however, to justify the use of deadly force, the appearance must have been so real that a reasonably cautious and prudent person … would have believed the danger could be avoided only through the use of that force,” the instruction read.
Jurors refused to talk to reporters after the verdict about how they reached their decision Saturday night. Their names are being kept secret until Judge Debra Nelson lifts an order protecting their identities.
After the verdict, Jacksonville State Attorney Angela Corey said the use of deadly force is often one of the toughest areas of the law for prosecutors. Gov. Rick Scott appointed her office to the case a few weeks after the shooting when local prosecutors didn’t press charges.
She said that when a victim shoots a robber or rapist, the use of deadly force is clearly justifiable. In cases such as Zimmerman’s, the lines get blurry.
“That’s why this case was unique, in a sense, and that’s why this case was difficult,” Corey said.
Even defense attorneys, who use the law to their advantage, say the instruction for the justifiable use of deadly force can be confusing to jurors since there are so many elements to it. It’s one of the longest instructions given jurors.
“The more complex the instruction, the more it benefits the defense,’’ said Blaine McChesney, an Orlando defense attorney and former prosecutor with no connection to the Zimmerman case. “It’s a very convoluted instruction but it’s the best they have.”
Jurors were also told that reasonable doubt about Zimmerman’s guilt could come from conflicting evidence or the lack of evidence.
Over three weeks of testimony, they received mounds of conflicting evidence and testimony of what happened on that rainy Feb. 26, 2012, night after Zimmerman spotted Trayvon walking in his townhouse complex after the teen bought candy and iced tea from a nearby 7-Eleven. He didn’t recognize Trayvon, who lived in Miami Gardens and was visiting the home of his father’s fiancee. The neighborhood had experienced burglaries and some people had reported the suspects seen fleeing were young black males, like Trayvon.
After calling police dispatchers, Zimmerman got out of his vehicle and followed Trayvon. He says Trayvon attacked him. Prosecutors disputed that. The evidence was unclear.
None of Zimmerman’s neighbors saw or heard the entire fight and eyewitnesses gave differing accounts of whether Zimmerman or Trayvon was on top. Trayvon’s parents testified it was their son screaming for help on 911 calls made by Zimmerman’s neighbors. Zimmerman’s parents testified that it was their son. The fight ended seconds after the screams when Zimmerman fired one shot from his handgun into Trayvon’s heart.
Zimmerman identifies himself as Hispanic. His mother was born in Peru and is a naturalized U.S. citizen. His father is a white American.
After the verdict, civil rights leader Al Sharpton asked the U.S. Justice department to bring charges against Zimmerman for civil rights violations as it did against the Los Angeles police officers in the Rodney King police beating case two decades ago.
NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous concurred and started a petition calling for federal charges. “The most fundamental of civil rights – the right to life – was violated the night George Zimmerman stalked and then took the life of Trayvon Martin,” Jealous wrote in the petition which was posted on the website MoveOn.org and addressed to Attorney General Eric Holder.
But federal law probably doesn’t apply, said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami. Unlike the police officers in the King case, Zimmerman wasn’t acting “under color of law.”
There also is little basis to charge Zimmerman with a federal hate crime, Weinstein said, since prosecutors would have to show that he shot and killed Trayvon primarily because of the teen’s race.