BPR’s Lauren Sukin and Thomas Nath spar over whether the Zimmerman decision is right, the implications of racial prejudice in the justice system among Millenials and what the case means for the rest of us.
Lauren: I want to start by saying that I don’t think Zimmerman is completely, or even mostly, innocent. But that’s not what we’re arguing about here. What I do think is that the overall reaction to this case has underestimated the importance of reasonable doubt. I think there is reasonable doubt about the fact that Zimmerman committed 2nd degree murder, and there might be reasonable doubt about the manslaughter charge as well.
Thomas: I agree that reasonable doubt is the important factor in this case, but I believe that when Zimmerman chose to follow Trayvon Martin, armed with a deadly weapon, against the wishes of the police dispatcher to whom he was speaking, he eliminated any possibility for reasonable doubt in terms of aggravated stalking, which automatically qualifies him for first-degree murder — a notch above the charges pursued by prosecutors — under Florida laws.
Lauren: Well, there are really two points of time in question here. The first, as you mentioned, is the decision to follow Martin. The second is what actually happened during the conflict. To me, the second is more important. Yes, Zimmerman followed Martin when he shouldn’t have. But, had he not confronted Martin (or had Martin not confronted him), then there wouldn’t have been a conflict, or even a crime. I think that what Zimmerman did in that moment would qualify as manslaughter (or, as you noted, at least manslaughter) in most states. It’s the actual moment of conflict, though, that changes this from a case about that first moment to a case about Florida gun laws. Which, admittedly, need some major reform.
Thomas: For me, the most important evidence in this case lies in the motivations behind the conflict. Trayvon was talking on the phone to his girlfriend, carrying a bag of Skittles and an Arizona Watermelon juice, had promised the son of his father’s girlfriend that he would return shortly with Skittles for him, and had no reason to make Zimmerman suspicious. Zimmerman made himself the aggressor not only through the action of following with a loaded gun, but removing himself from his car and confronting Trayvon, a mere teenager, directly.
Lauren: This is where our approaches begin to differ. Talking about being a teenager and having a bag of Skittles is all-important from a motivational standpoint, and certainly has helped catalyze the protest movement, but that’s not the important distinction, legally speaking. Even if Zimmerman had absolutely zero reason for suspicion — although the mere fact that Martin was a stranger in his neighborhood is some reason for suspicion — if Zimmerman’s life was actually threatened during the conflict, then suddenly he is protected under Stand Your Ground laws. Is that fair? Probably not. But it’s the law. This is where we enter into an interesting distinction between what actually happened and what reasonable doubt will allow us to assume could be the case.
Thomas: But the Stand Your Ground laws only apply to individuals engaging in lawful activity. Zimmerman engaged in an act of aggravated stalking, making him the initiator of any conflict, and thereby relinquished any right he had to self-defense. Martin has a stronger claim to the Stand Your Ground laws — why isn’t his violence protected when he was approached by an unknown and armed adult in a truck?
Lauren: Stand Your Ground is about a degree of violence that Martin never executed, so what you’re pointing out is really another hole in Florida law.
Thomas: Since Trayvon’s father lived in the gated community in which he was walking, he had a right to be there, and he had a right to use force if he felt as though he were being threatened. Martin was just following “Stranger Danger” rules. What we do know is that Zimmerman followed Martin when he was expressly told not to, had far superior firepower, and got out of his truck to engage the individual. Based on this, and not even the wild ride of witness accounts, Zimmerman should definitely have received at least a guilty verdict on the manslaughter charge. Under Florida law, any person who causes the death of a minor due to negligence is guilty of manslaughter — surely Zimmerman is guilty of that at the very least.
Lauren: What I wonder about the manslaughter charge is this: What was the impact of adding it on late? If manslaughter had been the only charge from the beginning, it’s possible that the jury would have gone the other way. Of course, the jury is told to consider the charge just like they would consider any other charge, but the jury is human, and there’s bias that comes into play. A late charge like this can seem like grasping for straws, and it can be difficult for a jury to reframe the evidence in terms of manslaughter when that’s not how it was presented in the case.
Thomas: That’s an interesting idea, and I’d tend to agree with you on that one. In my mind, the prosecution bungled several aspects of the case (then again, they had little to work with). They should have accentuated that George Zimmerman was stalking Trayvon with a loaded weapon, and they also should have emphasized the fact that Trayvon’s DNA was not on the murder weapon, meaning that Zimmerman was in possession of the firearm for the duration of the conflict. Framed the right way, these could have helped the jury take the final step toward a manslaughter charge.
Lauren: I think that this case in any other state would have ended with a manslaughter conviction, if not conviction for a higher crime, but that Stand Your Ground stood in the way. Let’s transition away from whether or not Zimmerman is guilty, but the reality that he has been proclaimed innocent.
In Part II, Sukin and Nath delve into the social ramifications of the verdict and its effect on American life.