Trayvon Martin and the Irony of American Justice

This is not our system malfunctioning. It is our system working as intended. 
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A photograph that appeared in a chain e-mail about Trayvon Martin. In fact, the man in the photo is a 32-year-old rapper considerably larger than the slain 16-year-old.

In trying to assess the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, two seemingly conflicting truths emerge for me. The first is that based on the case presented by the state, and based on Florida law, George Zimmerman should not have been convicted of second degree murder or manslaughter. The second is that the killing of Trayvon Martin is a profound injustice. In examining the first conclusion, I think it's important to take a very hard look at the qualifications allowed for aggressors by Florida's self-defense statute:

Use of force by aggressor—The justification described in the preceding sections of this chapter is not available to a person who:

(1) Is attempting to commit, committing, or escaping after the commission of, a forcible felony; or

(2) Initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself, unless: (a) Such force is so great that the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant; or (b) In good faith, the person withdraws from physical contact with the assailant and indicates clearly to the assailant that he or she desires to withdraw and terminate the use of force, but the assailant continues or resumes the use of force.

I don't think the import of this is being appreciated. Effectively, I can bait you into a fight and if I start losing I can legally kill you, provided I "believe" myself to be subject to "great bodily harm." It is then the state's job to prove—beyond a reasonable doubt—that I either did not actually fear for my life, or that my fear was unreasonable. In the case of George Zimmerman, even if the state proved that he baited an encounter (and I am not sure they did) they still must prove that he had no reasonable justification to fear for his life. You see very similar language in the actual instructions given to the jury:

In deciding whether George Zimmerman was justified in the use of deadly force, you must judge him by the circumstances by which he was surrounded at the time the force was used. The danger facing George Zimmerman need not have been actual; however, to justify the use of deadly force, the appearance of danger must have been so real that a reasonably cautious and prudent person under the same circumstances would have believed that the danger could be avoided only through the use of that force. Based upon appearances, George Zimmerman must have actually believed that the danger was real.

If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

There has been much complaint that "stand your ground" has nothing to do with this case. That contention is contravened by the fact that it is cited in the instructions to the jury. Taken together, it is important to understand that it is not enough for the state to prove that George Zimmerman acted unwisely in following Martin. Under Florida law, George Zimmerman had no responsibility to—at any point—retreat. The state must prove that Zimmerman had no reasonable fear for his life. Moreover, it is not enough for the jury to find Zimmerman's story fishy. Again, the jury instructions:

George Zimmerman has entered a plea of not guilty. This means you must presume or believe George Zimmerman is innocent. The presumption stays with George Zimmerman as to each material allegation in the Information through each stage of the trial unless it has been overcome by the evidence to the exclusion of and beyond a reasonable doubt. To overcome George Zimmerman's presumption of innocence, the State has the burden of proving the crime with which George Zimmerman is charged was committed and George Zimmerman is the person who committed the crime.

George Zimmerman is not required to present evidence or prove anything.

Whenever the words "reasonable doubt" are used you must consider the following: A reasonable doubt is not a mere possible doubt, a speculative, imaginary or forced doubt. Such a doubt must not influence you to return a verdict of not guilty if you have an abiding conviction of guilt. On the other hand if, after carefully considering, comparing and weighing all the evidence, there is not an abiding conviction of guilt, or, if having a conviction, it is one which is not stable but one which wavers and vacillates, then the charge is not proved beyond every reasonable doubt and you must find George Zimmerman not guilty because the doubt is reasonable.

It is to the evidence introduced in this trial, and to it alone, that you are to look for that proof.

A reasonable doubt as to the guilt of George Zimmerman may arise from the evidence, conflict in the evidence, or the lack of evidence.

If you have a reasonable doubt, you should find George Zimmerman not guilty. If you have no reasonable doubt, you should find George Zimmerman guilty.

This was the job given to the state of Florida. I have seen nothing within the actual case presented by the prosecution that would allow for a stable and unvacillating belief that George Zimmerman was guilty.

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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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