Monday, July 15, 2013

Zimmerman Verdict & Reasonable Doubt

"You must presume George Zimmerman is innocent.
The presumption stays with George Zimmerman unless it has been overcome by the evidence to the exclusion of and beyond a reasonable doubt.
George Zimmerman is not required to prove anything.
If, after carefully considering, comparing and weighing all the evidence, there is not an abiding conviction of guilt, or one which which wavers and vacillates, then the charge is not proved beyond every reasonable doubt and you must find George Zimmerman not guilty."
Instructions read to jury by Judge Debra S. Nelson
Did George Zimmerman murder Trayvon Martin?
Not pull the trigger and cause his death, but commit murder?

I don't know.
And neither do you.
Nor did the jury.

Yes, the presumption of innocence and reasonable doubt.
These are not mere technical legal matters.
No. These are at the heart of our criminal justice system.
They are essential protections, fundamental rights, upon which criminal law in our country is built.

Reasonable doubt?
There was so much in this case, you could drive a truck through it.

And we do not convict, stigmatize as criminal, and punish in this country unless the government eliminates the presumption of innocence by eliminating all reasonable doubt.
Juries in this country are emphatically instructed that they must find a defendant not guilty if they have any reasonable doubt.

These are protections intended to reduce the risk of innocent people being wrongfully convicted.
Also, to make it very very very likely that people who are convicted are really guilty.
[Even then, of course, we still have some wrongful convictions.]

Keep in mind something that some commentators the last few days seem to have disregarded or forgotten or didn't understand.
A verdict of "not guilty" does NOT mean innocent.
It does NOT mean the defendant didn't do it.

Nor does it mean that the jury concluded any such thing.
The jury might have, but that's not what they are asked to do.
They are only asked whether the prosecution defeated the presumption of innocence and proved guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
A "not guilty" verdict simply means that the jury still had some reasonable doubt.

The jury might even have believed that the defendant was actually guilty.
That he did actually do it.
But they were not sure.
They still had some doubt that was reasonable.

And, a verdict of "not guilty" does not mean that the victim was the one who was guilty.
In this case, that Trayvon Martin was guilty of something.
That Trayvon Martin was the wrongdoer.
That the jury necessarily concluded that George Zimmerman was right and Trayvon Martin was wrong.

But some have been saying precisely that these past few days.
Yes, on the day after the verdict, the host of a TV news program and the legal commentators who were his guest experts.
That the verdict meant that the jury concluded that Zimmerman was innocent and Trayvon Martin did something wrong.
Now this is one of the most ignorant, preposterous, inflammatory--Need I say moronic?--things I've heard these last several days.
And we've all heard some really idiotic commentary.

Forget about those conservative commentators who were sure from the very beginning that George Zimmerman was innocent. Sure that he was just protecting his neighborhood and himself from some trouble-making delinquent.
Forget about those liberal commentators who were sure from the very beginning that George Zimmerman was guilty. Sure that he committed a racially-motivated murder.
[There is little doubt about the ideological and racial division in this country over the assessments--the predisposed assessments--of this case.]

Forget about the ideological nonsense, blindness, prejudices.
That's not unexpected.
But even beyond the pre-dispositions, there's the post-verdict analysis.
And perhaps the most shameful I've heard was that host and 2 legal "experts" who agreed that the verdict meant that the jury decided that the victim, Trayvon Martin, was the wrongdoer.

Is it possible to be so mistaken, so ignorant about the most rudimentary aspects of our criminal justice system?
Again, the "not guilty" verdict only meant that the jury was not sure.
It did NOT mean that the jury believed that George Zimmerman rightfully killed Trayvon Martin.
It did NOT mean that the jury believed Trayvon Martin was doing anything wrong.
It did NOT necessarily mean that George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin in actual self-defense.
No, none of that.

Consider the law as told to the jury by Judge Nelson:
"If in your consideration of the issue of self-defense you have a reasonable doubt on the question of whether George Zimmerman was justified in the use of deadly force, you should find George Zimmerman not guilty."
So, the verdict means absolutely nothing more than that the jury had reasonable doubt. That they were unsure. NOT--absolutely not--that the victim, Trayvon Martin, did anything wrong.

In short--and I know I'm now repeating myself--the jury just did not know what happened.
Having watched hour upon hour of the trial, I certainly wasn't sure what happened.
For that reason, I think the "not guilty" verdict was absolutely correct. The only fair one the jury could return.

One final note.
Did the prosecution overcharge? I think so.
Did the prosecution ever come close to proving the murder charge? I don't think so.

As Judge Nelson explained to the jury, here's what the charge of murder in Florida required:
"There was an unlawful killing of Trayvon Martin demonstrating a depraved mind without regard for human life. [And that means]done from ill will, hatred, spite or an evil intent,and indicates an indifference to human life."
Was that proven beyond a reasonable doubt? Did the evidence presented by the prosecution even come close to showing some "depraved mind" or "indifference to human life?" And if not, why did they charge that crime? I don't think they should have.

If anything, the prosecution could have charged some form of negligent homicide. That is, an unreasonable or careless act that resulted in another's death. In this case, that George Zimmerman's conduct was not reasonable and it resulted in Trayvon Martin's death.

As most of you know, the prosecution requested, and the judge agreed, that the jury be instructed to consider whether Zimmerman was guilty of the lesser crime of "manslaughter" if not of murder. That charge of manslaughter in Florida is close to, but not exactly, negligent homicide.

As Judge Nelson told the jury:
"George Zimmerman cannot be guilty of manslaughter by committing a merely negligent act."
So, to convict Zimmerman of manslaughter, the jury would have to conclude that his conduct was something more egregious than merely negligent, merely unreasonable, merely careless. The judge didn't explain--at least not in the copy of her instructions that I have--exactly what level of culpability is required under Florida's version of "manslaughter."

[From what I can gather from reading the Florida statutes and the suggested instructions for Florida judges, the crime of "manslaughter" that the jury was allowed to consider in the Zimmerman case required "culpable negligence." In Florida law, that means more than carelessness. It apparently must be "gross and flagrant." Must be a "gross careless disregard for [another's] safety and welfare".]

Even with regard to negligent homicide--i.e., "manslaughter," "culpable negligence," or anything else--there's the question of self-defense. And as Judge Nelson did tell the jury:
"Self-defense is a defense to the crime of Second Degree Murder, and the lesser included offense of Manslaughter."
As we've already discussed, to quote the Judge, "If in your consideration of the issue of self-defense you have a reasonable should find George Zimmerman not guilty."

Yes, a tragic case.
But the tragedy would have been compounded if Zimmerman were convicted despite all the reasonable doubt about his guilt.