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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary: Anatomy of Zimmerman's acquittal

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 15, 2013: Cable news is the ideal venue for sensationalistic coverage of a murder trial because the people who produce it know how to beat a story to death. They fixate attention on the focused topic to the virtual exclusion of all others — and it’s not as though nothing else is going on.

Egypt presently teeters on the brink of the kind of civil war that rages full-blown in nearby Syria. In Iraq, where America invested nearly 5,000 lives and a trillion dollars in treasure to establish democracy, sectarian violence escalates that promises yet another inferno in the Mid-East.

A Korean airliner crashed in spectacular fashion for reasons as yet undetermined in San Francisco while a runaway train immolated a small town in Quebec. But the 24/7 coverage of recent weeks went to a tabloid spectacle in Florida where George Zimmerman stood trial for murder in the death of young Trayvon Martin.

One story that was largely overlooked in the process came from O’Fallon, Mo., where Councilman Jim Pepper has introduced a bill to lift a municipal ban on firing BB and pellet guns in open places within the city. Pepper feels the “nanny state” prohibition infringes on a citizen’s right to enjoy the Second Amendment in one’s own backyard. Opponents point out that the projectiles fired by these devices tend to ignore property lines. Oh well, we are, after all, a nation of shooters…

Zimmerman was one of those shooters, though he looked none too happy with the consequences of his marksmanship during his trial. While the lawyers preened for the camera and the talking-heads opined, the star of the show observed the proceedings in silent wonder — a dumpy-looking young man who was clearly in over his head.

He reminded me of a turkey who’d been subpoenaed to appear before the committee in charge of planning Thanksgiving dinner. While everybody else garnered their 15 minutes of fame, Zimmerman was looking at 30 to life in a prison where he didn’t figure to be a real popular guy.

The prosecution team heeded a venerable law school adage: When the facts are on your side, you pound the facts. When the law is on your side, you pound the law. When both the facts and the law are against you, you pound the table. They waved the bloody shirt and made emotional appeal to the jurors’ sympathies for the family of a slain teenager.

For their part, Zimmerman’s defenders were able to raise a surfeit of reasonable doubt about what, exactly, transpired between the principals on the night in question. They also offered compelling evidence that the defendant was on the losing end of a fistfight when the fateful shot was fired.

But they still had a huge obstacle to overcome because there was no doubt — reasonable or otherwise — that an unarmed 17 year old who’d been minding his own business had been shot dead by the neighborhood busybody. Since when is it against the law to look suspicious to George Zimmerman?

Clearly, Zimmerman had no intent to murder before the grim encounter. That fact is obvious because he called 911 before acting. People who plan to commit a crime usually don’t invite the police to the scene to witness the event. 

Had he followed the 911 dispatcher’s sensible instructions to wait in his vehicle until the authorities arrived, I’d be writing about something else now. He had no training, nor any legal authority, to detain or interrogate anybody and he apparently was not a gifted pugilist. He did, however, have a gun.

It says here that without that weapon — and the false sense of invulnerability it can impart to the uninitiated — he’d have never gotten out of the car. Instead, emboldened by the pistol on his hip, he exceeded his nonexistent authority with tragic consequence.

Of course, the case became a cause celeb because of its racial overtones, although no evidence was ever presented to indicate that race played any role in what transpired. Trayvon Martin was black; Zimmerman was originally identified as white. That description was later amended when it was learned that he was, in fact, Hispanic. Commentators ultimately circumvented that complicating nuance, however, and the shooter is now designated as a “white Hispanic.”

That newly coined appellation was close enough to support the theory that a black kid had been profiled by a white racist because of who he was rather than what he’d done. Unfortunately for the state’s case, said assertion remained an unproved assumption that wasn’t part of the trial.

Zimmerman had been charged with Murder in the Second Degree. In a blow to the defense, the judge allowed jurors to consider the lesser offense of manslaughter, which was probably the appropriate charge to begin with. 

The decision to include deliberation of the lesser charge raised the prospect of a compromise verdict — a midway point between conviction of murder and outright acquittal. That compromise might have made the jurors feel better about their selves but would little benefit Zimmerman because under Florida law, manslaughter with a firearm and murder second provide for essentially the same range of penalty.

In the event, the jury found for the defendant. He’s now free to live the remainder of his life looking over his shoulder, a despised symbol of racial intolerance in certain circles, a personification of the dark side of the gun culture in others. He should have bought a BB gun and moved to O’Fallon.

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