Clear verdict in murky case
In the court of public opinion and media punditry, the trial of George Zimmerman rages on and will for quite some time. But in the court that matters most — the Florida court that heard the case — the verdict is in. Zimmerman was found not guilty in the slaying of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a case that raised questions about “stand your ground” self-defense laws, racial profiling and race relations in general.
Was justice served? Not in the sense that an unarmed teenager was shot to death while walking through a residential neighborhood where his father lived. Trayvon Martin didn’t have the chance to tell us his side of this tragic story. But justice was served in that prosecutors presented their case to a jury, and it proved unpersuasive. Our system of laws can’t guarantee a morally satisfying outcome, only that the accused should have their day in court.
Zimmerman was guilty of bad decisions in singling out Martin for surveillance and then in not backing off and waiting for police to arrive. But a rash reaction to a perceived threat wasn’t on the bill of indictment. Florida (and other states) may also be guilty of encouraging vigilantism through “stand your ground” laws that blur the line between justifiable self-defense and over-zealous actions that may endanger the lives of law-abiding citizens. However, Florida’s legal code wasn’t on trial, either. The context of the case had many layers, but the question confronting jurors was much narrower. Was Zimmerman guilty, or was there reasonable doubt?
Already, we’ve heard calls for the U.S. Department of Justice to file criminal civil rights charges against Zimmerman. Given the case’s high profile, federal officials may be compelled to review the evidence. But considering the jury’s verdict and the weakness of the prosecution’s case — many legal observers deemed it shaky — it’s difficult to see how further state action against Zimmerman is warranted. Attorney General Eric Holder is right when he says the case has raised “complicated and emotionally charged” issues long simmering in many communities. But the fact that the Zimmerman-Martin case raised those issues doesn’t mean it’s a suitable vehicle for resolving them. It isn’t, although Martin’s family is still free to pursue a civil case, as Ronald Goldman’s family successfully did after O.J. Simpson’s acquittal.
Trayvon Martin’s death was profoundly sad and unnecessary. It should provoke a re-examination of “stand your ground” laws, racial profiling and an atmosphere of vigilante justice that invites citizens to take the law into their own hands. But as for the case against George Zimmerman, the jury has spoken. It’s time for the prosecution to rest.