Misunderstanding the Zimmerman verdict

Misunderstanding the Zimmerman verdict

The trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin has reopened scabs on race relations that we thought were either closed or closing after the election of the first black president of the United States. It has also pointed out the public’s lack of knowledge of the nature and operation of our legal system.

An NBC/WSJ poll indicates that race relations are now worse than when President Obama was elected in 2008. The Zimmerman trial is a contributing factor. According to the poll, 45 percent of whites and 58 percent of blacks now believe race relations are very or fairly bad, compared with 2009, when only 20 percent of whites and 30 percent of blacks held an unfavorable view.

I attribute this, in large part, to individuals and groups that benefit from racial discord and used the Zimmerman trial to further their goals with little or no relation to the facts or the law.

I understand the hue and cry that has developed over the “not guilty” verdict. Very simplistically, a teenager is dead by gunshot. Someone must be held accountable. This is an understandable emotional reaction but it does not reflect the operation of the law.

Yes, Zimmerman admitted killing Martin. There is a civil remedy for this, a wrongful death action. The question is, under the law: Was a crime committed?

The application of law and appeals for justice come from two different places, as captured in a quote attributed to the great jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.: “This is a court of law, young man, not a court of justice.”

Under English common law, from which our legal system derives, there were two parallel legal systems, law and equity. Violations of the law were, and are, adjudicated in courts of law. Sometimes there was a wrong for which there was no legal remedy. In such cases, the injured party petitioned to the “king’s conscience” for equity. Like laws, which are administered by courts of law, equity developed its own tribunals, called Chancery, and rules, known as “maxims” of equity. The nature of an equity court is captured in the saying, “Equity sees that as done what ought to be done.” To invoke equity jurisdiction, the plaintiff must have “clean hands.”

Criminal charges are filed in law, not in equity. There are strict rules, which demand compliance. Every crime in the criminal codes has component elements. All elements of the alleged crime must be established in the collective mind of the jury beyond a reasonable doubt. This is called the burden of proof, which is borne by the prosecution because of American jurisprudence’s presumption of the innocence of the accused. If the prosecution does not establish each and every element of the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury is legally bound to acquit the defendant.

Most crimes require mens rea and an actus reus. Mens rea is a guilty mind. This is the intent factor. What did the defendant intend? This is linked to motive. Actus reus is the criminal act itself, which can have more than one component element. For example, common-law burglary required the act to be performed at night with force to break and enter the premises. If the act was not at night, or force was not used to enter, it was merely robbery.

Another factor to consider is self-defense. Was the alleged criminal act committed while the defendant was defending himself? Like crimes, the act of self-defense is composed of various elements, all of which have to be satisfied in order for it to be proved and, hence, a defense to the alleged crime.

Finally, there are laws that are unique to a jurisdiction. Despite the publicity, the Florida “stand your ground” law was not a factor in determining Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence. It was waived by the defense prior to trial, and the prosecution, in its rebuttal argument, stated it was not an issue.

Many legal analysts said the charge of second-degree murder was overcharging, meaning that, on the facts presented, they did not think that the prosecutors could meet their burden of beyond a reasonable doubt.

At the end of the trial, the prosecution saw the weakness of its case, which is why it asked the judge to also allow the jury to consider the lesser charges of manslaughter and third-degree murder. The judge allowed the former, but disallowed the latter.

The bottom line is that, as a matter of law, the jury found that the prosecution did not meet its burden of proof by establishing the elements of either second-degree murder or manslaughter beyond a reasonable doubt.

Those demanding “justice” are asking for equity, and equity does not apply in criminal cases.

Juror B29, in a much-publicized interview, got it right. She felt Zimmerman “got away with murder.” In this context, I consider her use of “murder” to be in common parlance, a person was killed. However, she said there was not enough evidence to convict under Florida law, explaining, “If you have no proof that he killed him intentionally, you can’t say he’s guilty.”

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