The narrow confines of George Zimmerman’s criminal trial proved such an imperfect vehicle for all those outsized expectations.
The Sanford jury was not asked to resolve questions about racial profiling or to ponder society’s bigoted preconceptions about young black males. Jurors were not considering great civil-rights questions.
The jury, kept insulated from the press coverage and the roiling madness on social media, was tasked only with sorting through conflicting narratives recounting a fight between Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, just those few crucial moments on that February evening in Sanford.
Beyond the courtroom, there was a great national debate over George Zimmerman’s foolish actions and wrongheaded assumptions. About repeated calls to 911 reporting suspicious black men. About his muttered remarks to the 911 operator about punks who always seemed to get away. To no small segment of society, the only real question before the jury was the depth of the racial animus that led to the killing of a teenage boy.
In that larger context, George Zimmerman’s acquittal seemed unfathomable. But the jury in Sanford was not instructed to consider extraneous details that have obsessed the rest of us. “In deciding whether George Zimmerman was justified in the use of deadly force, you must judge him by the circumstances by which he was surrounded at the time the force was used.”
At the time. And the jurors were told, “The danger facing George Zimmerman need not have been actual, however, to justify the use of deadly force.” Only that, in his head, he believed that the danger was real.
And the defense produced enough evidence, the photos of Zimmerman’s bloodied head, the neighbor who saw Zimmerman on his back, getting pummeled, that the jury could hardly avoid harboring reasonable doubts about the prosecution’s muddled case.
Nor did this case turn on the more controversial aspects of Florida’s Stand Your Ground statutes. Since the law was passed in 2005, defense lawyers have managed to preempt trials after outrageous killings by citing SYG. Crucial questions in this case, at least, were decided by a jury, not by a judge in a pre-trial hearing.
The jurors were told that if Zimmerman “was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself….”
Under Florida’s bizarre self-defense law, those same elastic parameters would have applied to Trayvon Martin, if, say, during the struggle that night, he had wrested away Zimmerman’s pistol and shot his antagonist. In our state, either combatant, feeling fearful, seems to have the right to stand his ground and shoot the other. A kind of legal toss-up.
That may be insane, a product of a mindless state legislature kowtowing to the NRA, but it’s not one of the great civil-rights issues of our times.