Zimmerman Jury to Citizens: Kill at Will

Posted on July 16, 2013

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Zimmerman Jury to Citizens: Kill at Will

© Josh Sager – July 2013

On the evening of July 13th, the jury in the George Zimmerman trial ended deliberations and came back with a verdict of not guilty on all charges. With this verdict, the terrible tragedy of the Trayvon Martin shooting comes to a close with Zimmerman escaping all criminal liability for his actions on the night of the shooting.

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Despite the finality of this verdict on the fate of George Zimmerman, the resolution of this case gives birth to several very important legal and social debates. Chief among these debates, we face extremely controversial questions about the use of self-defense and the racial biases in the justice system.

The following article is my analysis of the Zimmerman not-guilty verdict and the very real issues illustrated by the acquittal of Zimmerman for his killing of Martin.

The Verdict

When I first saw the news alert for the verdict of the Zimmerman trial, my first thought was the following (and please excuse the language): “What the fuck just happened?”

Since the Trayvon Martin shooting in February 2012, I have followed the social and legal responses to the shooting very closely. In addition to following the situation in the news, I took action through writing articles on the situation and participating in several Boston-area protests (the “Million Hoodie March”). During all of this time, I thought that justice would eventually be done and that Zimmerman would suffer severe legal consequences for his killing of an unarmed teenager.

Legally speaking, there has always been an extremely valid debate over whether Zimmerman should be charged with 2nd degree murder or voluntary manslaughter. The primary difference between these two charges is a matter of intent:

  • 2nd Degree Murder: A person is guilty of 2nd Degree murder in Florida if they kill somebody without premeditation or special circumstances (ex. torture), and they demonstrate a “depraved mind.” A depraved mind in this situation consists of a lack of regard for human life that surpasses simple negligence.
  • Voluntary Manslaughter: A person is guilty of Voluntary Manslaughter in Florida if they act intentionally and without reasonable justification in a way which results in the death of another person.

As it is extremely difficult to prove intent in the Zimmerman situation, many (myself included) argued that Zimmerman should have been charged with manslaughter rather than murder. While manslaughter is a lesser charge, Florida law would have required that Zimmerman face a mandatory minimum sentence of 9.25 years for his shooting of Martin if convicted. Due to the public pressure on the situation, the judge would likely have given a sentence far above the minimum.

Zimmerman was initially charged with 2nd degree murder, but voluntary manslaughter was added into the indictment at the end of the trial in order to give the jury an option other than murder or acquittal.

Put plainly, there was easily enough evidence to convict Zimmerman of voluntary manslaughter and the decision by the jury to acquit is unfathomable. Not only was Zimmerman proven to have lied numerous times to investigators (ex. getting out of his car because he didn’t know the street name, Martin jumping out of the non-existent bushes, etc.), but he was an armed and MMA trained person with a history of violence following an unarmed minor. Given the preponderance of the evidence and the inclusion of the lesser charge of manslaughter, I simply have no idea how the jury decided to let Zimmerman walk away.

Zimmerman will never face legal consequences for his shooting of Trayvon Martin, but I hope that he is stigmatized, persecuted and harassed for the rest of his life. He may have escaped legal judgment, but that will do nothing to insulate him against becoming a national pariah, akin to OJ Simpson or Casey Anthony.

Ultimately, this verdict not only compounds the tragedy for the Martin family, but it exposes a very troubling series of concerns regarding the Florida justice system. Apparently, the Florida self-defense statute now allows armed individuals to pick a fight with unarmed individuals and to kill them if they dare to fight back when there are no other witnesses.

Self-Defense Expansion

The Zimmerman verdict presents an expanded, and fairly terrifying, view of self-defense which has broad ramifications if it becomes mainstream. Under the view of self-defense used by the Zimmerman jury, an armed man can instigate conflict with no legal justification, only to shoot their target if he dares to fight back and try to escape—this is murder disguised as self-defense.

In order to demonstrate this, I will isolate the self-defense aspects of this case by stripping away the racial and age factors which made the Martin shooting so controversial to many Americans:

Person A is an armed man who has been trained to fight and who weighs over 200lbs. Person B is an unarmed man who has had no formal combat training and who weighs 150lbs. One night, Person A follows Person B for no valid reason and instigates a fight—this fight results in the shooting death of Person B and several minor injuries inflicted on Person A. After the shooting, Person A is the only surviving eyewitness and he claims that Person B attacked him, pinned him, and tried to kill him, thus necessitating Person A to defend himself with lethal force. When the evidence is analyzed, it demonstrates that Person A had lied in several areas of his story; his injuries were minor, his account was physically impossible and Person B had no blood or foreign DNA on his hands.

From a purely objective point of view, it is apparent that the story of Person A of this situation should not be believed—it isn’t supported by the evidence, he has a history of violence, and he has an extremely compelling motive to lie in order to evade the consequences of his action. Unfortunately, the jury of the Martin case was presented with this very situation (made worse by the fact that his victim was a minor and the probability that the initial conflict was based upon racial biases) and they chose to let the armed pursuer/killer go free.

If self-defense begins to conform to the logic of the Zimmerman jury, then Florida will have become a place where murder is essentially legal. In order to murder somebody, a Floridian can simply get them into a place where there are no eyewitnesses, hit them in order to start a fight, and then shoot them once they get a few punches in—the facts that they were the aggressor in the initial conflict and that they responded with force way beyond the level that they were presented are apparently meaningless.

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The propagation of this view of self-defense is a nightmare scenario for public safety, particularly in such a famous case. After seeing this verdict, violent Floridians with a grudge and a gun suddenly think that they have a powerful defense for murder and the likelihood that they will act out their violent fantasies suddenly becomes much higher. In fact, we have already seen this creep in self-defense during several murder cases in states which have passed expansive self-defense protections.

For example, Raul Rodriguez—a Texas firefighter—was angry about his neighbors’ loud music one night, so he went over to his neighbors’ house with a gun and a video camera. After walking over to the house, Rodriguez got into an argument with his neighbors, leading him to fatally shoot one of them while repeating “I’m in fear for my life” and “I’m gonna have to defend myself” for the camera. Once the police arrived, Rodriguez claimed self-defense and gave them the tape in order to prove it—apparently, he thought that his constant repetitions of self-defense language would mitigate the fact that he went out of his house with a loaded gun and a camera, obviously intending to shoot his neighbors and establish self-defense on camera.

Ultimately, Rodriguez’s mistake was to bring the camera, as it gave a clear and perfect picture of the situation that showed his falsification of the self-defense situation to the police and jury (you can view the full tape here); he is now in jail, having been sentenced to 40 years for murder. The lesson learned from the Martin and Rodriguez cases are simply that you can legally kill people, just as long as there isn’t a video or witness to discredit your story.

The expansions of self-defense statues demonstrated in the Martin case has now sent the message to violent people living in some states that they can kill at will, just as long as they do so in a way that doesn’t leave witnesses to contradict their story after the fact (and don’t tape their crimes for the police). To be “fair” to Florida’s justice system though, it appears that all of their states’ population has been given massively expanded rights to kill anybody who even looks at them the wrong way—that would be a protection granted primarily to white and wealthy Floridians.

Racial Disparities in Self-Defense

If “kill at will” self-defense were to be applied equally across all demographics in Florida, the state would just be facing a terrible crisis in public safety. Unfortunately, Floridians have further compounded their self-defense problems by creating a racially-disparate view of self-defense, where white defendants are protected by self-defense and minority defendants are handed draconian prison sentences.

Put plainly, if everything in the case remained the same, except Zimmerman were a black man and Martin a white teenage girl, this case would have been looked at and prosecuted radically differently. Nobody can say with a straight face that Zimmerman would be allowed to claim self-defense and it is ridiculous to think that the victim’s pot experimentation and clothing would be relevant.

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White people are more likely to be able to successfully claim self-defense and are much less likely to be killed in “self-defense” when not committing a crime than African Americans. This disparity leads to a system of justice where white Americans receive additional legal protections and are not subject to realistic fears that they will be seen as “scary” and killed while walking down the street.

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This graph pretty much says it all about racial self-defense disparities.

White People “Defending Themselves” Against Black Teens

The fact is, self-defense works when the jury sees the victim as a threat to the defendant; because of this latent biases against certain demographic groups lead it to be more likely that somebody will get away with certain groups of people. Unfortunately, American culture portrays young black males to be inherently dangerous, thus it is far easier for a white person to get away with killing one than it would be if they killed a person of another race.

Some paranoid white people have a fear of black youth that causes them to act violently and then claim that they were justified in their actions because they were defending themselves—we have seen this both in cases involving public citizens and with police officers (oftentimes resulting in dozens of bullets killing the young black man).

In fact, we see a perfect example of how “self-defense” is used to kill black youths by white paranoids in the case of Jordan Russell Davis. In 2012, only months after the Martin shooting, Davis—a 17 year old black Floridian—was shot in another virtually identical “self-defense” case. Michael Dunn, the shooter, is a white man who was irritated that Davis’s car stereo was too loud. According to witnesses, Dunn opened fire on Davis in his car after asking him to turn the sound down. After he was caught (he fled the scene), Dunn claimed self-defense and said that he saw a shotgun in the car and was in fear for his life—no gun was found. Dunn is currently on trial and we don’t know what the disposition of the case will be.

African Americans’ Decreased Ability to Claim Self-Defense

The very same latent biases which make it easier for white Americans to claim self-defense when they kill black people make it more difficult for African Americans to claim self-defense.

During a series of cases, we have seen that African Americans have a difficult time avoiding legal consequences by claiming self-defense, even if they have very strong cases. The perfect model example of this low accessibility to self-defense arguments by African Americans can be found in the Marissa Alexander case.

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On the afternoon of August 1, 2010, Marissa Alexander and her husband Rico Gray–both African American residents of Jacksonville Florida—got into an argument which escalated to violence. Mrs. Alexander was threatened with bodily harm and she decided to fire a warning shot from her pistol into the ceiling in order to prevent her husband from beating her. Nobody was harmed during this incident, yet, when the police arrived on scene, Mrs. Alexander was arrested and charged with three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (20+ year minimum sentence). In the legal proceedings that followed, Mrs. Alexander claimed that her actions were self-defense and necessary to protect her life in the face of an abusive husband, yet she was still charged with multiple felonies.

Mrs Alexander’s claim that her discharge of a weapon was simply an attempt to ward off violence from her husband is supported by statement from Mr. Gray himself, as well as his well-documented history of violence towards women. Mr. Gray himself admits to perpetrating physical violence against Mrs. Alexander on previous occasions, thus her assumption that he meant her harm in this particular incident is entirely reasonable.

This case should be the model example of self-defense, where a woman used the absolute minimum force to prevent a much larger attacker from harming her. Unfortunately, Alexander was convicted after only 12 minutes of jury deliberations and is now one year into her 20 year prison sentence—her abusive husband now has custody of their children.

While it isn’t impossible for African Americans to claim self-defense, they find it much less accessible than white Americans do. This disparity is terribly unfair and the cause of huge miscarriages in justice like the Martin and Alexander cases.

Racial Self-Defense Disparities in the Zimmerman Trial

During the Zimmerman trial, we saw an example of the disparity in self-defense availability between the races when nobody on either side brought up the obvious question: Even if Martin hit Zimmerman, why weren’t his actions considered self-defense? After all, Zimmerman was a strange man who was following an innocent kid at night—didn’t the kid have a right to “stand his ground” if he thought that the stranger stalking him was going to try to harm him?

Unfortunately, we will never know what Martin was thinking that night, as the man following him turned out to be armed and willing to kill. Perhaps he thought that Zimmerman was following him through the neighborhood in order to rob or assault him? Maybe he thought that Zimmerman was unbalanced and dangerous? We simply don’t know what Martin was thinking, and defaulting to the idea that Martin wasn’t afraid because he isn’t around to explain his fear is just wrong.

Every piece of objective evidence and simple common sense points to the fact that Zimmerman was the initial aggressor in this conflict—he followed Martin and his story of Martin “jumping out of the bushes” at him is debunked by the fact that there were no bushes at the scene. The only reason why Zimmerman would lie about how the fight started is if he didn’t think that the truth would reflect well on him, thus it is highly likely that he caught up with Martin and did something which would be seen as instigative (if Martin truly started the fight, Zimmerman would have no reason to create his own story). As the initial aggressor, Zimmerman has no right to claim self-defense if the fight shifts away from his favor (after all, FL “stand your ground” law gives Martin a right to use force to defend himself if he is legally in a location).

Apparently, some people see self-defense as something that only applies if you are both white and the last person standing.

Zimmerman’s “Scary Black Man” Defense

George Zimmerman’s defense team utilized a startlingly hypocritical and odious defense strategy. The Zimmerman defense strategy was based on justifying Zimmerman’s actions through demonizing Martin and utilizing the stereotype of the “scary and violent black man.” Despite this defense strategy, the Zimmerman defense and supporters have staunchly denied any racial motivation for the killing and decried any attempts to label Zimmerman as a racist as defamatory.

During the trial and in the media, the Zimmerman defense painted Trayvon Martin as a scary and violent black man who posed a great enough threat to necessitate lethal force. This propaganda campaign was aimed purely at tarring the victim enough that the jury would see his killing as justified. Of the sentiments that made this campaign, here are a few of the worse ones:

  • Martin was labeled a “thug” and a “gangster” by the Zimmerman lawyers, despite the fact that he had no criminal record and was not breaking the law on the night that he was killed. Put plainly, “thug” and “gangster” are just dog-whistle code words for young black males who don’t look and act like Urkel from Family Matters.
  • Martin’s pot use and bad language on social media was conflated into a shadowy and nefarious past which was used to suggest that he was violent. If every teenager to use pot and bad language online were worthy of extra-legal execution, then the millennial generation would likely not exist today.
  • The Zimmerman defense introduced evidence of robberies in the Sanford area and made clear to stress that the perpetrators were black. This inclusion of unconnected robberies by OTHER black youth can only serve to imply that all black teens are criminals and that Zimmerman was correct in shooting Martin. Justifying the shooting of Martin—an innocent teen—by introducing evidence that people who share Martin’s race had committed crimes in the area is the very definition of racism—they were attempting to generalize across an entire race in order to justify a killing.
  • Martin was suspended from school for possessing a baggie with pot-residue. Despite this simple and common reason for being reprimanded, Zimmerman defenders claimed that Martin had been suspended for anything from operating a fight club to being a drug dealer. The claims that Martin was violent and a fighter are absolutely debunked and were nothing short of lies. It is possible that Martin was selling or trading drugs (there is no evidence to support this claim, but there is none to refute it) but this is not a reason to assume that he is violent, nor is it an excuse for Zimmerman to kill him.

In a starkly ironic situation, the Zimmerman defense claimed that Zimmerman would never racially profile a young black man, all the while basing their defense on the assertion that Martin was dangerous due to a series of racial stereotypes.

Just before the verdict was read, Geraldo Rivera said something that I though was among the most offensive things proposed by mainstream media commentators in recent memory. Despite its offensive content, I see it as a very good descriptor of what the Zimmerman defense was aiming to get the jury to believe:

“I see those six ladies in the jury putting themselves on that rainy night, in that housing complex that has just been burglarized by three or four different groups of black youngsters from the adjacent community. So it’s a dark night, a 6-foot-2-inch hoodie-wearing stranger is in the immediate housing complex. How would the ladies of that jury have reacted? I submit that if they were armed, they would have shot and killed Trayvon Martin a lot sooner than George Zimmerman did.”

In this statement, Rivera not only justifies racial profiling but also asserts that it is reasonable for such profiling to end in the shooting of minority Americans. Put plainly, this statement asserts that white people should legally be able to shoot black people who enter their neighborhoods if there have been incidents of other black people breaking into houses. I don’t know if Rivera knows this, but segregated housing and lynchings are frowned upon in this century and not excuses for murder.

As an interesting note, what do people think would happen if Rivera’s statement were reversed? What do people think would happen if he said that, because white men in expensive suits destroyed the economy and stole thousands of houses, it would justify people shooting white people in suits in pre-emptive self-defense? If Rivera (or anybody in the media) were to express this type of sentiment against white men in suits, human science doesn’t have a measurement of speed fast enough to describe how quickly they would be derided, ostracized and fired.

Unfortunately, it appears that Rivera’s comments—while despicable and racist—were entirely correct in regard to the feelings of this jury. Given their verdict decision, it appears that the Zimmerman defense was successful in swaying the women on the Zimmerman jury to share Rivera’s thinking on the criminality of black males and the legality of shooting black teenagers for being in the wrong neighborhood.

The NAACP’s Pursuit of a Federal Case

While I agree with the NAACP’s belief that the verdict of the Zimmerman case is a complete travesty, I do not agree with their attempts to convince the federal government to charge Zimmerman with civil rights violations.

In the United States justice system we have a legal concept called “double jeopardy,” which prevents somebody from being tried for the same crime multiple times. Under the law, if a person is acquitted of a crime—regardless of how unfair or disturbing that acquittal is—they cannot be charged for the same event, even if new evidence is found after the conclusion of the trial.

The double jeopardy rule exists for a very important reason: to prevent the state from repeatedly prosecuting an individual for a crime until they get a jury which agrees with their arguments.

At the time of the shooting, activists and concerned citizens wanted a trial—after much work, we got what we wanted and now we must live with the jury’s decision. Under the law, Zimmerman is now not guilty of killing Trayvon Martin, even if every sane American understands that he is morally, ethically, and logically guilty of a crime (to use the HuffingtonPost headline for the verdict announcement: “Zimmerman Not Guilty, but Not Innocent”).

The Zimmerman acquittal is a terrible miscarriage of justice, but going after Zimmerman is not worth the cost of undermining the idea of double jeopardy. Zimmerman may not spend the rest of his life in jail for his crimes, but he will live with the stigma of his actions and will likely have to spend his life under the same rock that Casey Anthony is currently living under.

In the coming months, the American civil rights community and concerned citizens should focus upon preventing the next Trayvon Martin from being killed and creating laws which would prevent the next George Zimmerman from falling through the cracks. We lost the fight over George Zimmerman’s fate, but we simply cannot afford to lose the greater war against racial injustice, inequality in the law, and murder masquerading as self-defense.