Commentary: Charges against George Zimmerman will be tough to prove

The Miami HeraldApril 25, 2012 

It will be astonishing if George Zimmerman is convicted of second-degree murder for shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Not that Zimmerman was right to the pull the trigger, but that particular charge will be extremely difficult to prove. Why Special Prosecutor Angela Corey didn’t file for manslaughter instead has lots of smart lawyers scratching their heads.

Perhaps it’s a strategic move aimed at nudging Zimmerman toward a plea bargain, but in the meantime her decision only serves to raise expectations among the many — outraged and grieving — who’d been calling for Zimmerman’s arrest.

True, the lethal confrontation between the neighborhood crime-watch patroller and the Miami Gardens teen would never have occurred if Zimmerman hadn’t been tailing Martin through that gated townhouse community in Sanford.

There’s no law against walking at night while black, or running at night while black.

Or wearing a hoodie at night while black.

But Zimmerman was sure the kid was up to “no good,” and he made a 911 call that stands as a tragic foreshadowing of what was to come.

“These a------- always get away,” he said at one point, an edge of exasperation in his tone.

He ignored the police operator’s advice to stop following Martin, and on the tape he can clearly be heard hastening his pursuit. It turned out that the teen was merely returning to the home of his father’s girlfriend after a trip to a nearby store.

To win a conviction for second-degree murder, however, prosecutors must convince a six-member jury that Zimmerman acted in a manner that was “evincing a depraved mind.”

Suspicion, unfounded or not, isn’t inherently malicious. Nor is reckless judgment a sure sign of mental depravity.

A judge has sealed the file on this case, over the protests of this newspaper and other media outlets, so it’s possible that Corey has evidence about Zimmerman’s state of mind that we don’t know about.

So far, the 911 tape of his phone call offers the best glimpse of what was going through his head. When you listen to the whole thing, there’s no hint of violent intent, no overt racial slurs.

What you hear is a guy playing the role of cop without a badge, a guy who perceives himself as a protector of his home territory. He wants the police to come investigate a black kid in a hoodie.

Would Zimmerman have chased a white kid in a hoodie? There’s no way to know.

Would a white kid have approached Zimmerman, as Martin apparently did, to demand to know why he was being followed? It’s very possible. Would the exchange have ended in a homicide? Again, there’s no way to know.

Two things are certain. If Trayvon Martin had shot an unarmed George Zimmerman and claimed a “stand-your-ground” defense, Martin would have been put in jail that night. A black man shooting a white or a Hispanic man seldom gets the benefit of the doubt.

And if both Zimmerman and Martin were black, the country wouldn’t know a thing about this case. Probably nobody outside Sanford would. One black man killing another rarely makes the headlines.

Long before the trial begins, the media fibrillation is underway, with no shortage of gasbags on both sides. Predictably, some gun nuts and racist droolers are trying to make a hero of Zimmerman and a street thug of Martin (who had no criminal record).

From extreme factions in the other camp, you may hear Zimmerman portrayed as a trigger-happy stalker of black youths, a view disputed by one of his African-American friends.

We’ll probably never know what really happened when Martin and Zimmerman spoke face-to-face, since one is dead and the other is trying to avoid prison. The few witnesses will probably give conflicting accounts of what they saw and heard.

Still, a trial is vital because Martin’s death was so wrong and so avoidable, and it took place purely because Zimmerman foolishly propelled events in that direction. It’s a classic case for manslaughter, not second-degree murder.

Jurors will be able to vote for that lesser charge of manslaughter, which might be why prosecutors overreached. A compromise manslaughter verdict is bound to stir less public reaction than an acquittal or a murder conviction.

Zimmerman’s attorney will try to bypass a jury by asking the judge for a dismissal, based on Florida’s brilliant “Stand Your Ground” law — now a favored legal defense for gang members and dope dealers who plug each other on the streets.

Given the national spotlight upon the Martin shooting, it seems unlikely that Zimmerman will be able to dodge a trial. Trayvon isn’t around to tell his side of the story or to hear his killer’s, but his family deserves a day in court.

Because in the end, a young man carrying a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea laid dead in the grass, a young man who was being followed by a stranger and didn’t know why.

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