Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Zimmerman verdict inevitable given Florida law

I'm reluctant to do this because it's a lose-lose proposition, but let me weigh in on the George Zimmerman verdict.

That verdict shocked and appalled some people, but it should not have been a surprise. Testimony at the trial made it clear that Trayvon Martin was seen by witnesses atop Zimmerman, who was on his back on the ground, and Martin was flailing away at the community watch zealot. Given that testimony and Florida's broad self-defense law, the jury could not find Zimmerman guilty of murder or even manslaughter. State law allows a person who feels his life is threatened to use deadly force against an assailant, regardless of other circumstances.

Zimmerman may have been guilty of being overly suspicious, of assuming police-like duties for himself, and of disobeying a 911 dispatcher who ordered him not to follow the suspicious character he was tracking. But he was not charged with any of those offenses, if they were crimes at all.

You can't blame people for being upset about the verdict. A couple has lost a son to a senseless incident. An act of unnecessary violence has gone unpunished. But the fault is not with the jury or the criminal justice system. The fault is with the state laws that set so low a threshold for claiming self-defense and stoke the popularity of concealed handguns.

Suppose George Zimmerman did not have a concealed 9mm handgun. This incident would have turned out differently. Trayvon Martin would have been angered by the "cracker" stalking him through a gated community. He might have knocked down the stalker and jumped on top of him. He might have punched him in the nose and banged his head against a concrete sidewalk. But it's doubtful that he would have killed Zimmerman or that Zimmerman would have killed him. The easy-to-obtain and popular concealed weapon permits and the broadly worded self-defense laws make incidents like this inevitable.

Martin's death is a tragedy. Zimmerman's acquittal is troubling in the broad sense that the law does not address the fundamental issues and the prosecution over-reached with its murder indictment.

Some critics have compared the verdict to the verdict in the 1955 Emmit Till murder. There is no comparison. Till's murderers were welcomed by a racist society and vindicated by a corrupt justice system. Zimmerman faced a jury in a fair trial, and he leaves a free man but a pariah to American society who has to fear vigilante revenge wherever he goes. The only similarity is that in each case a young black man died violently, but, most tragically, that happens on a near-daily basis in America.

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