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.


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