The Case to Be Made Against George Zimmerman


It will not be an easy one. I received the following note from a former homicide prosecutor in Florida. He is responding to the latest account given, in which Trayvon Martin, evidently for kicks, decks Zimmerman with one punch and starts ramming his head into the concrete:

A couple of thoughts: 

1.) I don't believe Mr. Zimmerman's story (presuming that what is in the report is truly what he told the police), but more importantly, 

2.) What prosecutors believe is not nearly as important as what they can prove. I can not stress this enough, and my mind is about to explode with all of nonsense being written about what the government can and cannot do. It is up to the government, not anyone else, to prove that Zimmerman is lying. 

The "self-defense" defense is one of the most difficult defenses for prosecutors to overcome, and the Florida statutes actually give immunity to individuals who believe that the use of deadly force was necessary to prevent what they believed was imminent death or great bodily harm. I know you've seen the actual statute (Fla. Stat. 776.013) but here is the relevant section 

(3): A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony. (emphasis mine). 
Note, whether the use of force is reasonable rests in the mind of the accused, and the accused need not fear that death is imminent, only great bodily harm. This is a critical detail that almost all of MSNBC is overlooking. 

What Zimmerman did was bullshit, and he should be held accountable. But under the events he allegedly described to the police, the prosecution is going to need some strong evidence that Zimmerman is lying, not about small details but about the essence of the fatal encounter, if they wish to charge him. That could come from forensic evidence or the 911 calls, but short of that, Zimmerman will be presumed innocent.
We are now hearing reports that the police originally wanted to charge Zimmerman, but was waived off. This account is really at odds with everything Bill Lee said, and with his demeanor throughout the investigation.

Nevertheless, I think it's worth understanding how difficult it is going to be to prosecute Zimmerman. The point about reasonable use of force resting "in the mind of the accused" is really key.

But with that said I'm left with still more questions. For instance:

(2) The presumption set forth in subsection (1) does not apply if: 

(a) The person against whom the defensive force is used has the right to be in or is a lawful resident of the dwelling, residence, or vehicle, such as an owner, lessee, or titleholder, and there is not an injunction for protection from domestic violence or a written pretrial supervision order of no contact against that person; or 

(b) The person or persons sought to be removed is a child or grandchild, or is otherwise in the lawful custody or under the lawful guardianship of, the person against whom the defensive force is used;
I presume this to mean one's home, or one's vehicle, not a public street. But does a "gated community" qualify as a "dwelling?" I don't know. But whatever one thinks of the investigation, this is a really, really bad law which essentially incentivizes the Wild West. Again, had Trayvon Martin been older and armed this case could look a lot different.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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