George Zimmerman arrest: Proof that the system worked – or failed?

A special prosecutor issued an arrest warrant for George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case. But earlier, local police had refused to do so, raising questions about the legal process.

Gary W. Green/REUTERS
George Zimmerman (l.) stands with his attorney, Mark O'Mara, as he makes his first appearance on second-degree murder charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin at the Seminole County Correctional Facility in Sanford, Fla., Thursday.

Angela Corey, the special prosecutor in the Trayvon Martin shooting, commended the Sanford Police Department for assisting in the investigation that resulted in the arrest Wednesday of George Zimmerman on second-degree murder charges for his role in the death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.

But when she turned to thank local law enforcement officials, only two undersheriffs stood there, neither of them from Sanford. To some observers, including supporters of the Martin family, it was a reminder of how close the Florida justice system came to a very different conclusion in the case.

The night of the shooting, Sanford police released Mr. Zimmerman without charges; department Chief Bill Lee later told the Martin family that no arrest would be forthcoming. After a boisterous and sustained public outcry, Gov. Rick Scott appointed Ms. Corey to look into the case – beginning a process that, with Zimmerman’s arrest, came to an opposite conclusion.

In that light, these questions arise: Does the special prosecutor’s decision suggest that Sanford police got it wrong? And what if no special prosecutor had been called in?

In the end, did the legal process work or did it fail?

On Thursday, Zimmerman made his first court appearance since being arrested. The judge set a May 29 date for an arraignment at the hearing.

Since the days after Trayvon’s death, his family and their supporters have cast Sanford law enforcement’s decision not to arrest Zimmerman as a miscarriage of justice. The events of Wednesday night “never should have happened in the first place,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, the veteran civil rights leader and MSNBC host, suggesting that the arrest should have happened long before. 

The story’s stark central fact – an innocent, unarmed teenager being shot dead in the streets with a bag of Skittles in his hand while the shooter goes free – offended a rational sense of justice, says Nicholas Johnson, a law professor at Fordham University in New York. In doing so, he adds, it scratched at a deeper concern among many Americans that the justice system had failed its most basic task – protecting the innocent – out of an increasing deference to claims of self-defense.

Critics of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which states that citizens do not need to back down when threatened and can protect themselves with deadly force if mortally threatened, say it has changed the unwritten social contract.

“This recognition that this was something that never should have happened, that’s really sort of a broader kind of critique: whether there is a kind of public impression about the looseness with which the self-defense standard will be applied,” says Professor Johnson. “And do the police have that impression and, worse, do citizens have that impression, and did that contribute to what happened here?”

But even for analysts who see the decision not to charge Zimmerman as the wrong one, it does not follow that the decision was insincere. Moreover, prosecutors might have reversed it even without public pressure, as is commonly the case.

What’s more, the rights of free assembly and speech ensured by the Constitution were meant to allow “the people” to address grievances and demand justice as long as they do it peaceably in the streets. Thousands marched on behalf of the Martin family in dozens of US cities, demanding Zimmerman's arrest. In addition, more than a million people signed the petition for Zimmerman’s arrest.

“The world is waiting to see America step up to the plate and do what its Constitution promises to do,” said a Martin family adviser before Wednesday’s press conference by Corey.

Of course, the Sanford police department’s decision to release Zimmerman could still be vindicated. Before a jury ever hears the case, a Florida judge will hold an immunity hearing where Zimmerman’s attorneys will argue that their client should be protected under the state’s Stand Your Ground law. If the judge agrees, Zimmerman could go free – although prosecutors can appeal such decisions.

Sanford Police have denied race played a role in their decision to release Zimmerman, and there is no evidence that it did. According to police, they took a man in custody and released him because they could find no evidence or probable cause to rebut Zimmerman’s assertion that Trayvon attacked him and was pummeling him on the ground before Zimmerman pulled out his 9 millimeter and shot him.

Though he had called 911 dozens of times to draw attention to issues ranging from kids playing too rough at the pool to potholes, Zimmerman was the neighborhood-watch captain of a subdivision that had seen a spike in low-level crime. He had had his eye on suspicious people, including young black men. At one point, he says on the 911 tapes, “These [expletive] punks, always get away.”

But the core of this case – and the legal system’s quandary – might be less about race than an impassioned public debate seeking to define the limits of self-defense, says Fordham’s Johnson.

“The thing that’s clear now to everybody is that no matter where you are, whether you’re in Florida or some other American jurisdiction, if you shoot someone and claim self-defense, and the circumstances are questionable, you have unleashed a nightmare for yourself,” he says. “To the degree that you think you’re going to be a hero by stepping into the shoes of the police, it is quite clearly a mistake.”

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