Law and Justice and George Zimmerman

If we understand and accept these legal limitations -- and perhaps only if we do -- the result here makes sense. Purely as a matter of law, you could say, it makes perfect sense. Florida's material, admissible, relevant proof against Zimmerman was not strong enough to overcome the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The eye-witnesses (and ear-witnesses) did not present a uniformly compelling case against the defendant. The police witnesses, normally chalk for prosecutors, did not help as much as they typically do. Nor was there compelling physical evidence establishing that Zimmerman had murderous intent and was not acting in self-defense.

The case was "not about standing your ground; it was about staying in your car," the prosecutor cogently said during closing argument. But in the end, under state law favorable to men like the defendant -- that is, favorable to zealots willing to take the law into their own hands -- Zimmerman's series of deplorable choices that night did not amount to murderous intent or even the much more timid manslaughter. The defense here wisely understood that and was able consistently, methodically, to remind jurors that prosecutors had not adequately explained (or proved) how exactly the altercation started and how precisely it progressed.

Without a confession, without video proof, without a definitive eyewitness, without compelling scientific evidence, prosecutors needed to sell jurors cold on the idea of Zimmerman as the hunter and Martin as the hunted. But when the fated pair came together that night, in those fleeting moments before the fatal shot, the distinctions between predator and prey became jumbled. And prosecutors were never able to make it clear enough again to meet their burden of proof. That's the story of this trial. That explains this result. That's why some will believe to their own dying day that George Zimmerman has just gotten away with murder.

Maybe yes and maybe no. Technically speaking, the fact that Zimmerman now has been found not guilty under Florida law of the crimes of second-degree murder and manslaughter does not necessarily exonerate him in the world beyond the court. It does not mean that he is not culpable. This is and can never be a case where the defendant can proudly proclaim his innocence at some later date. But today's verdict, the unanimous result of six women who worked through their longest day to deliver the word, does mean that after 18 tortuous months, this tragic story now can move on to whatever comes next.

And what comes next, surely, is a wrongful death civil action for money damages brought against Zimmerman by the Martin family. That means another case, and perhaps another trial, with evidentiary rules that are more relaxed than the ones we've just seen. And that means that a few years from now, after Martin v. Zimmerman is concluded, we'll likely know more about what happened that night than we do today. That's the good news. The bad news is that no matter how many times Zimmerman is hauled into court, we will never know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about what happened that terrible night.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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