A jury of six Florida women ranging in age from their 30s to their 60s found George Zimmerman not guilty late Saturday of murdering unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin last year, in the process underscoring the high value at least these six jurors placed on self-defense.
“You have no further business with the court,” Judge Debra Nelson told George Zimmerman, a former neighborhood watch captain, after a 16-hour deliberation marked by a brief, unresolved question from the jury about a lesser charge of manslaughter included in the jury instructions.
After what became a 17-month national ordeal, emotional, even angry reaction broke out on the lawn of the Seminole county Courthouse where the trial took place.
Police authorities had voiced concerns about civil unrest because of the sensitive nature of the trial – which was widely seen as the case of an innocent black youth gunned down by an armed neighborhood vigilante, who has now walked scot-free. (Five of the six jurors were white.)
The case also came to be seen as a parable involving civil rights, racial profiling, racism, gun rights, and the changing definitions of self-defense in public places, brought about by liberalization of gun laws in Florida and other states.
The shooting and its aftermath also had strong political overtones, given that President Obama weighed in, noting that, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon,” as well as the involvement of the US Justice Department in an investigation that finally led a special state prosecutor to reverse a decision by the Sanford Police Department to not charge Zimmerman with any crime.
It was that decision to originally not charge Zimmerman, echoed on media platforms and from pulpits by civil rights leaders, that brought national attention to the case, forcing the dismissal of the Sanford Police Chief and causing eventual charges to be filed against Zimmerman, 44 days after Trayvon’s death, for second degree murder.’
In a widely watched and debated trial that became part criminal procedural, part civics lesson, prosecutors alleged Zimmerman had “hate in his heart” when he profiled, followed, then confronted an innocent teenager walking back to where his father was staying
But defense attorney Mark O’Mara claimed Martin wasn’t unarmed, but in fact used a concrete sidewalk to injure Zimmerman enough to justify the armed man unholstering his Kel-Tec 9 mm pistol and fire it up and into Trayvon’s chest, causing him to utter, “You got me,” and then fall away and onto his face.
“[Zimmerman] is innocent, because he acted in self-defense,” Mr. O’Mara said in his closing argument.
The state argued that Zimmerman put Trayvon’s death into motion when he followed him into a dark area between several row houses in the Retreat at Twin Lakes gated neighborhood, and that it was Trayvon who had the right to defend himself against an armed adult stranger. They said Zimmerman lied, prevaricated, and exaggerated his case, fueled by knowledge he had gained from several criminal justice classes he had taken where self-defense laws were discussed.
Prosecutor John Guy said in the state’s final word that the case defined an important boundary in the social compact: Whether an adult can chase a child and then kill that child if he fights back.
But the jury did not see the law and the facts before them that way, focusing ultimately on the moments before Trayvon’s death, when he was straddling Zimmerman, whom several eyewitnesses said had run out of options.
The tension the jury had to resolve was the apparent right to self-defense versus the idea of “culpable neglect” embodied in the lesser charge of manslaughter.
“If he was flat on his back and getting the mud pounded out of him and if he was in reasonable fear of his life, then … the verdict is not guilty, no matter what stupidity he engaged in to get himself to that point,” says Bob Dekle, a University of Florida law professor. But a manslaughter verdict, he argues, could also have been defensible as fair and well-reasoned.
The verdict will be seen as a clear defeat for those who staunchly believed Zimmerman bore some responsibility for Trayvon’s death. It’s likely to be seen as a broad victory for the expansion of self-defense rights in many states, a trend largely begun in Florida, where the shooting took place.
Michael Flamm, a historian at Ohio Wesleyan University who studies civil unrest, told the Monitor this week that there’s small potential for civil unrest in the wake of a case that polarized America beyond the hard and circumstantial evidence, which ultimately did not illuminate what ultimately happened between a man and a teenager on a dark, rainy Florida night.
“Zimmerman is not a police officer, he’s not an agent of the state,” which are the usual requirements for civil unrest in the wake of a criminal trial, says Mr. Flamm. “But there are a lot of nuances in this case, and of course in any civil disorder and unrest nuances tend to get swept aside very quickly. The details of the case don’t matter, the symbolic significant of the case matters most.”
The immediate reaction to the verdict from the prosecutors and defense attorneys arguing the case was subdued.
Said Zimmerman lawyer Don West: "There are no winners here, there are no monsters."