Trayvon Martin case: Why hasn't George Zimmerman been arrested?

The lead investigator into the death of Trayvon Martin reportedly thought George Zimmerman should be charged, but legal analysts say police thought they lacked the evidence to do so.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters
A sign with information regarding a neighborhood watch program stands in front of The Retreat at Twin Lakes community in Sanford, Fla., Tuesday. Trayvon Martin was shot dead on February 26 after George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain, believed the young man walking through the gated community in a hooded sweatshirt looked suspicious.
Orange County Sheriff's Office/Reuters
George Zimmerman.

Why didn’t the Sanford, Fla., police arrest George Zimmerman after he shot Trayvon Martin Feb. 26? That’s a question that today is more relevant than ever amid reports the lead investigator in the case thought Mr. Zimmerman should be charged with manslaughter for his actions.

The investigator, Chris Serino, was unconvinced by Zimmerman’s assertion that he resorted to deadly force in self-defense, according to ABC News. Mr. Serino filed an affidavit to that effect on the night of the killing.

But Serino’s superiors, in turn, were apparently unconvinced by Serino’s reasoning. They did not take Zimmerman into custody because of two words: “probable cause.”

“The Sanford police said this is why they did not arrest Zimmerman: they did not have probable cause to believe that he had broken the law,” writes legal analyst Dave Kopel, research director of the Independence Institute, on the widely read legal blog The Volokh Conspiracy.

Florida’ Stand Your Ground law would have been legally irrelevant to this determination, according to Mr. Kopel. Florida has other statutes that allow the use of force against a criminal attack, as do virtually all states. Zimmerman’s story has been that he was doing exactly that: defending against an assault by Martin. In his version of events, Martin knocked him down, then straddled him and pounded his head on the ground. He did not have an opportunity to retreat, he told police.

On the day of the shooting, Sanford police officials determined that they did not have enough evidence to the contrary to detain Zimmerman. Whether they were suspicious of his story would not have mattered. They would have had to produce hard evidence to the contrary. The “probable cause” criterion is derived from the Constitution and is meant to protect against unreasonable arrest.

“The normal rule in American law is that a police officer must have ‘probable cause’ in order to arrest someone,” writes Kopel.

This does not mean Zimmerman is innocent, of course. Since the shooting other evidence has come to light, such as the assertion by Martin’s girl friend that during a cell phone call he told her he was being followed and was trying to escape. The Sanford police could have botched their initial investigation.

According to CBS News, police interviewed six witnesses in the days following the attack. Nobody said they had seen the beginning of the altercation. None said they saw the shot that ended it.

Martin’s family has asserted that race overlies the case and that if the situation had been reversed, and a black teen had pulled the trigger, the teen would have been arrested that night.

They made this point in a brief appearance Tuesday at a forum organized by congressional Democrats on racial profiling and hate crimes.

“Trayvon was our son, but Trayvon is your son,” Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s mother, told the forum. “A lot of people can relate to our situation and it breaks their heart like it breaks our heart.”

The investigation into the case is now starting over. A new special prosecutor is bringing in witnesses to be interviewed again, as well as revisiting the physical evidence of the altercation. Zimmerman remains free, for now.

But as the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates notes, the case to be made against Zimmerman “will not be an easy one.”

The point is not whether investigators disbelieve Zimmerman. The point is whether they can prove that he is lying. Given that the other participant in the altercation is dead and unable to testify, that won’t be easy.

“I think it’s worth understanding how difficult it is going to be to prosecute Zimmerman,” writes Mr. Coates.


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