Can legally knowledgeable people explain the Zimmerman case to me?

I initially gave a small cheer inside when I heard that George Zimmerman (the man who shot Trayvon Martin) had been arrested. But after reading this piece by Radley Balko I’m having second thoughts. Balko quotes a number of legal bloggers saying that, whatever else you might say about the case, the affidavit of probable cause for Zimmerman’s arrest is badly flawed. And here’s the conclusion Balko’s piece:

There does seem to be a rift forming between people who practice criminal law (and as far as I know, all the people cited above lean left or libertarian in their politics) and the mostly progressive commentators who are cheering on the indictment. That speaks well of the criminal law crowd. It doesn’t speak well of the others.

The anger and outrage about how black people are treated in the criminal justice system is well-founded, well-supported, and consistent with my own experience reporting on these issues (although I think the common denominator is increasingly more poor than black). And there appears to be some of that history in Sanford as well, particularly in the way police investigate crimes—including this one. I’ve read in several places the proposition that if the races had been reversed that night in Sanford, Trayvon Martin would have spent the last month awaiting his murder trial from a jail cell. I think there’s plenty of history to support that sentiment. But we can’t hang all of the inequities of the criminal justice system on George Zimmerman. He deserves to be tried only on the facts specific to his case. Even gung-ho, wannabe cops deserve due process, and a fair crack at justice.

Compare Ed Brayton’s commentary here and here. For background, here’s a quote from Wikipedia:

When police arrived on the scene, Zimmerman told them that Martin had attacked him and that he had shot Martin in self-defense. According to police, Zimmerman was bleeding from the nose and had a wound on the back of his head. Responding officers took Zimmerman into custody, and transported him to the Sanford Police Department where he was questioned for about two hours by investigators. Police said that Zimmerman was released without being arrested because they had not found evidence to contradict his assertion of self-defense.

I honestly just don’t know enough about criminal law to know if this is out of the ordinary for police dealing with homicides where the killer is claiming self-defense. I have no idea how, legally, claims of self-defense are supposed to interact with normal rules about probable cause, burden of proof, and so on. More specifically, some of the discussion of the incident has been about Florida’s stand-your-ground law. That raises the question: if you think Zimmerman should have been arrested, is this because that’s what the law says. Or do you think the law says he shouldn’t have been arrested but this case shows the law is a bad law? I’ve heard both suggested, so which is it, and why?

[EDIT: A related question worth asking is what would be the case under the law in most states, or under common law.]

On reflection, I’m also uncomfortable with the idea of having a movement to have someone arrested. Yes, such a movement could potentially remedy a case of injustice or even fix systematic injustices and prevent them from happening in the future. But there’s also a huge risk of that kind of movement ruining an innocent person’s life.

  • jamessweet

    IANAL, but:

    That raises the question: if you think Zimmerman should have been arrested, is this because that’s what the law says. Or do you think the law says he shouldn’t have been arrested but this case shows the law is a bad law? I’ve heard both suggested, so which is it, and why?

    I generally side-step the latter question, because I am not quite sure how to interpret a law that is a) so obviously dangerous, and b) so incredibly wide open to interpretation and bias (a law written in such a way virtually guarantees unequal enforcement along racial and class lines, since it relies so heavily on the perceived trustworthiness of the killer). It does seem clear to me that, even going by Zimmerman’s account, this is at minimum manslaughter under common law, which of course is not necessarily the same as Florida state law.

    I do feel like Zimmerman is being over-demonized, but I also feel like the racial overtones of this case cannot be overstated. I wrote on my blog that:

    I don’t think [Zimmerman] was a sadistic murder, I think he was more likely a racially-ignorant dumb-ass with a hero complex. And as harsh as that sounds, many people are dumb-asses, and I would say most people are probably fairly ignorant about race issues, so aside from the hero complex this doesn’t exactly distinguish him from your average Joe (or George).

    I’ve also written that if the races were reversed, there is absolutely no question that the shooter would have been arrested the night of the incident. And although I am not entirely comfortable with some of the left-wing demonization of Zimmerman, I am absolutely disgusted at the right-wing demonization of Trayvon Martin.

    So in summary: For the reasons state before, I’m somewhat agnostic on whether an arrest should have been made under Florida law. I think it is a broken law and therefore I am not comfortable trying to interpret it. But I do think under common law, he would at minimum have been charged with manslaughter. And I absolutely think that confronting the racial aspects of this case is of crucial importance.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      It does seem clear to me that, even going by Zimmerman’s account, this is at minimum manslaughter under common law, which of course is not necessarily the same as Florida state law.

      If that’s true, it’s very helpful to know. Other people reading this, does that sound right to you?

      • slc1

        As I stated below, the police officer in charge of the crime scene wanted to charge Zimmerman with manslaughter but was overruled by the prosecutor.

        • Patrick

          I heard this too, and I think its fairly likely. But its worth noting that the prosecutor who supposedly told the police officer not to prosecute has claimed that this isn’t true. I rather suspect that what’s going on now is ass covering… but it is what it is.

          I had a case a while back where the prosecutor was waffling on whether to proceed, and the judge looked him in the eye and said, paraphrasing from memory, “Well, I suppose you’ll have to consider whether proceeding with this case is the ethical thing to do.” The prosecutor dropped the case a few minutes later. That prosecutor probably felt as though the judge told him not to proceed. But I bet the judge would deny that he said any such thing.

  • slc1

    As I understand it, the police officer who was in charge of the crime scene wanted to charge Zimmerman with manslaughter but was overruled by the local prosecutor.

    I have not read the articles by Balko & Co. but it should be noted that there is a dispute as to the alleged injuries to Zimmerman. Apparently, they don’t show up in a video that was taken as he was escorted into the police station, although that might be explained by his receiving treatment from the EMTs who were called to the scene. Clearly, they will be important witnesses in any criminal proceeding.

    There is also a conflict between Zimmerman’s claim that he had broken off the pursuit of Martin and was returning to his vehicle when he was attacked from behind by the latter and evidence from a telephone call between Martin and his girl friend in which it appears that Zimmerman approached and confronted Martin and that an argument ensued between them.

    It is quite clear that, as we sit here today, we don’t know the whole story, which is what trials are all about. However, given the fact that Martin had no weapon, and was outweighed by Zimmerman by some 50 pounds, it would seem that a self defense defense is problematical at best.

    It is my guess that the prosecutor has overcharged the case in order to force a plea bargain for a lesser offense, such as manslaughter.

    • jamessweet

      Agree with most of this, but I do have to say I don’t put too much stock in the fact that Zimmerman outweighed Martin. I’m built about like Zimmerman myself, I’m relatively close in age (I’m five years older), and let me tell you something: If I got in a fistfight with a wiry 17-year-old football player, I’d most likely get my ass handed to me.

      I think it’s totally plausible that Trayvon was “winning” the fight. Now, recently a couple of media outlets had a vocal analysis done on the 911 tapes, and it appears a near certainty that the person calling out for help was not Zimmerman (and therefore, logically, was almost certainly Trayvon), so that does cast some doubt on it.

      In any case, unless Trayvon jumped Zimmerman from behind or something, I would argue that it would still be manslaughter even if Zimmerman was getting his ass kicked. If you provoke a fight with someone and then escalate the fight to lethal force, you don’t get off scot-free (at least not in any sane jurisdiction), not even if your escalation was a result of being in genuine fear for your safety. The analogy I used on a blog post was imagine a couple of dudes get in an argument inside a biker bar, they take it outside, it’s not clear who throws the first punch, and at one point one of the participants (who is losing) takes out a knife and fatally stabs the other guy. That’s manslaughter at minimum, sorry.

      • slc1

        Apparently, a video tape has surfaced showing Zimmerman 3 minutes after the shooting. The video clearly shows him bleeding from several injuries to his head, which is consistent with his story that he was on the ground and that Martin was pounding his head against the sidewalk, particularly since Martin had no weapon on his person that could have caused such injuries.

        http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/20/trayvon-martin-case-new-p_n_1440283.html

      • slc1

        If the video is accurate, there is very little chance of a conviction for 2nd degree murder and probably not even for 1st degree manslaughter. Maybe 2nd degree manslaughter, which isn’t much more then a misdemeanor.

        However, the moral of this tragic event is that it occurred because Zimmerman was armed. If he had not been armed, it is highly unlikely that he would have pursued Martin on foot and hence the confrontation, however it went down, would never have occurred. This is the nuttiness in this country that private citizens are allowed to go around armed with firearms.

        • http://none Padua

          Apparently there’s a surveillance video, the camera having been pointed at the clubhouse, which is entered into evidence, though townhouses would have blocked the eventual shooting. The investigators must have retrieved it the very next morning and looked at it. Logically, you’d have to think that, and the fact Zimmerman passed a lie detector test, had to have factored into their decision not to arrest Zimmerman. It’s certainly plausible that Martin was wandering around the complex in a rather befuddled state, and it can be proven.

  • unbound

    Actually, I’m more than a little surprised at the legal experts blogging about the issue. They are actually making as many assumptions as the progressive commentators, and they should know better.

    The primary legal concern is whether Corey has any solid information leading to the confrontation. If she doesn’t have solid information indicating that the confrontation was initiated by Zimmerman, the case will almost certainly fail and Zimmerman will go free.

    Simply stated, the public (and the legal experts opining on the matter) don’t have sufficient evidence to know whether it made sense to file 2nd degree murder charges. What is known to the public about the case provides insufficient evidence to make an actual judgment for or against Zimmerman.

    If Zimmerman observed Trayvon, reported it and cornered Trayvon (and there is solid evidence to support that), self-defense (even with the Stand Your Ground law) becomes difficult to support. If Zimmerman was simply following Trayvon and just observing, and Trayvon confronted Zimmerman over him following, self-defense (especially in light of the Stand Your Ground law) will be easy to establish.

    The thoughts by some is that since Corey filed 2nd degree murder charges, she probably has some solid evidence that Zimmerman cornered Trayvon. Others are being more cautious on whether that evidence exists or not since it is not public. The legal experts quoted in the article are assuming that no other evidence exists that hasn’t already been made public (which, as I said before, is something that they should know better about).

    I did chuckle at one of the legal experts opining that the comment from the dispatcher that “We don’t need you to do that” in reference to Zimmerman following isn’t legally damning. While that is technically true (it wasn’t stated as a command to not follow), it will likely be viewed sympathetically by the jury in Trayvon’s favor.

    It truly will come down to what evidence Corey has that has not been made public.

  • eric

    As the Crommunist pointed out here, a ‘stand your ground’ case in Georgia where the self-defense claim was much stronger, but where the races were reversed, did in fact result in the shooter going to jail. The results of such trials have as much (or more) to do with jury selection and attitudes as they do with whether the case is legally strong or weak. Juries may convict someone on a very weak case (for murder), or let them go on a very strong case, depending on extralegal factors such as background (of both the defendant and the jury members themselves).

    So, while I’ll be very interested in any legal responses you get to your blog post, one thing to keep in mind is that a weak case does not necessarily mean that not-prosecuting is the right move.

    The other unknown that the DAs really have to worry about is whether stronger evidence might crop up in the future. If they think it might, its better to wait. But if the prosecutors have no realistic expectation of the case getting stronger with time, going to court with an admittedly flawed and weak case may be the best thing they can do.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      The results of such trials have as much (or more) to do with jury selection and attitudes as they do with whether the case is legally strong or weak. Juries may convict someone on a very weak case (for murder), or let them go on a very strong case, depending on extralegal factors such as background (of both the defendant and the jury members themselves).

      That, sadly, is true.

      So, while I’ll be very interested in any legal responses you get to your blog post, one thing to keep in mind is that a weak case does not necessarily mean that not-prosecuting is the right move.

      WTF? Isn’t trying to get someone thrown in prison on a weak case by exploiting things like the background of the defendant and the jury members a pretty awful thing to do? IANAL, but the impression I’ve always gotten from reading Ed and other people who write about these things is that prosecutors aren’t supposed to act as mirror images of defense attorneys, they’re supposed to care about the truth and public interest, not just putting people in prison.

      The other unknown that the DAs really have to worry about is whether stronger evidence might crop up in the future. If they think it might, its better to wait. But if the prosecutors have no realistic expectation of the case getting stronger with time, going to court with an admittedly flawed and weak case may be the best thing they can do.

      Again, huh?

      • eric

        Isn’t trying to get someone thrown in prison on a weak case by exploiting things like the background of the defendant and the jury members a pretty awful thing to do?

        Yes, absolutely! Sorry if I implied otherwise. What I meant was – if the state thinks that a crime has been committed, and they think they’ve got the right person, but they also know that their case is weak, the ethical thing to do is to proceed to prosecute using the evidence they’ve got…using ethical and legal prosecution procedures.

        I was saying that sometimes the right thing for prosecutors to do is to fight on despite the odds. Not that when the odds are bad, they should cheat.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    There does seem to be a rift forming between people who practice criminal law (and as far as I know, all the people cited above lean left or libertarian in their politics) and the mostly progressive commentators who are cheering on the indictment.

    What?! Where the fuck does he get this? There are plenty of “people who practice criminal law” who agree that Zimmerman should have been arrested, right along with the progressives. (And who, exactly, are the “people cited above” who “lean left or libertarian in their politics?” Methinks that’s a quote taken way out of context.)

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      If you want the context, read Balko’s entire post. You’ll also find the names and blogs of the “people cited above,” though I don’t know enough about any of them to say whether Balko’s claim is accurate.

  • Patrick

    Officially, Balko is making a fairly limited case. He’s just saying that a particular affidavit of probable cause doesn’t provide enough support for its claims to be legitimate. I think he may be right on that- my understanding is that these sorts of affidavits are supposed to cite their sources, rather than just say that the “investigation” determined such and such.

    Now some of the people he quotes are being hyper-critical… for example, the individual who is upset that the affidavit claims, without support, that Zimmerman “profiled” Martin. I don’t think that’s a problem. Zimmerman concluded that Martin was likely a criminal, and called the police on him. Zimmerman drew this conclusion by looking at Martin walk down the street. I don’t think its a problem to call this profiling.

    But in general, the affidavit might be improved significantly with citations.

    That being said…

    Imagine the following case:

    The police arrive at the seen of a shooting. Joe has shot Bob. Joe claims that Bob attacked him first, and then in the struggle, went for Joe’s gun. Bob was unarmed at the time of the attack. During the investigation, evidence arises that Joe has lied about some details of the event, such as what he was doing in the area. Joe seems to have told these lies in order to exonerate himself. Neither individual has an obvious motive for attacking the other.

    In my opinion, with no other evidence than that, a legitimate prosecution can be commenced.

    Now this case isn’t exactly the same as that one. But all of those elements exist, and the extra elements don’t seem to push things too far in either direction.

    • Patrick

      I should add, though this is tangential to the immediate point of Balko’s post…

      I think perhaps part of the problem is that people (including conservative legal commentators?) don’t understand that “beyond a reasonable doubt” is not an evidential standard in the classical sense. Its a requirement for how certain the jury must be. It says nothing about what justifies a jury in attaining that level of certainty.

      If I accuse Chris Hallquist of stealing $20 from my wallet, and he says he didn’t, and there’s no other evidence than that… we can have a court case, we can both testify, and Chris can go to prison. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” can be satisfied by something as simple as finding one witness credible, and another incredible. I know that seems insane to anyone who’s knowledgeable about human cognition, but its the system we have.

      If jurors evaluate the facts, determine that Zimmerman is not a credible witness, and accept as credible the circumstantial evidence that Zimmerman committed an unwarranted killing, then the “right” outcome is that he should go to prison. I’m using “right” in the sense of “the outcome the legal system is supposed to produce.”

      • Pierce R. Butler

        Ahem!

        The jury in your hypothetical case would have no choice but to find Hallquist uncredible.

  • April

    Ive researched the SYG law in Florida. Although, I dont know what would be considered a “reasonable doubt” in this case. According to just the evidence that the public knows, I dont think that it will be as easy to prove that Zimmerman acted in self-defense as some may think. The defendant would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was fighting for his life. According to the state law:

    The justification (immunity from charges) described in the preceding sections of this chapter is not available to a person who:

    (2) Initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself, unless:
    (a) Such force is so great that the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm AND that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant.

    With Zimmerman openly admitting to following Trayvon, unless there is a solid witness to say otherwise or that Trayvon followed Zimmerman, it may not be as hard for a jury to find him guilty. If that is in fact, Trayvon screaming for help, taking in consideration of Zimmerman’s priors of assault and resisting arrest,this may prove Zimmerman’s pattern of going against the law. Even if his prior arrests were convicted or not, if justice works the way it should,this should speak to his character and the jury will convict.

  • bubba707

    The part of it that convinced me Zimmerman deserves to be prosecuted is he was advised by the 911 operator to NOT pursue Martin but did anyway. That alone decided me the case needs to be heard and the real facts determined. Let justice be done by the law. I won’t make further conclusions until the legal system has the chance to work.

  • pinowefoqweipn

    Bubba, Zim was not “pursuing” anyone. He was trying to establish visual contact (which he had lost, Trayvon was no where in sight) and trying to find an address to tell the (non-emergency, not 911) dispatcher. After being told “we don’t need you to do that” (not “stop doing that”, an order which would have had no authority anyway, especially since the dispatcher couldn’t see anything there) Zim said “ok” and apparantly stopped looking for (not pursuing, which is impossible to do when the subject is out of sight) Martin. Martin doubled back to confront Zim (backed by Zim’s account, as well as the (suborned to perjury by Crump) testimony of Dee Dee.


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