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George Zimmerman: Not guilty, not surprising

July 14, 2013

George Zimmerman not guilty
George Zimmerman at trial

Let's start with this: George Zimmerman was undoubtedly acting on racism the evening he pursued, fought with, and killed unarmed teen Trayvon Martin. But am I surprised that the jurors didn't find him guilty? No, nor should they have.

The jurors were merely asked to apply the law, not question its morality. Under any just legal system, Zimmerman would be charged and convicted of murder—but the system itself is broken.

The problem lies in Florida's "stand-your-ground" law, which essentially legalizes violence spurred by our subjective biases; in this case, racism.

This statute, and others like it across the country, place an impossible burden of proof on the prosecution. They authorize the use of deadly force by any civilian who has a "reasonable fear" that they are at risk of great bodily harm. In order for Zimmerman to have been declared guilty, the prosecution would have had to prove through objective means that Zimmerman did not have the subjective fear of being in great danger.

On Feb. 6, 2012, Zimmerman was unnecessarily following Martin through a gated community, based (apparently) on nothing more than his race and clothing choice. At some point, a physical altercation ensued, which concluded in the shooting and killing of Martin.

The fact is, witnesses were not able to produce concrete testimony on the exact series of events leading up to the shooting. Zimmerman claims that Martin was the main aggressor, and was slamming his head against the pavement when he pulled the trigger, while the prosecution portrayed Zimmerman as the instigator. Who started the fight, and what precisely happened, could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

Under most state laws, if Zimmerman was not at home or in his workplace, he would still have had the "duty to retreat," and he would probably have been found guilty of manslaughter. Instead, under Florida law, the prosecution was faced with proving that Zimmerman did not have "reasonable fear" that he was in imminent danger of great bodily harm.

Murder based on fear is legal in Florida.

Racism emerges from fear. If legal culpability is based on such subjective factors, these laws greatly increase the acceptability of race-based crimes—or any hate crime for that matter. And such murky guidelines for juries (defining guilt or innocence based purely on perceived mindset) opens the door for incredibly inconsistent applications of the law. An article on Think Progress outlines how this has been unevenly applied across Florida's domestic violence lawsuits.

Our legal system is the most effective way of implementing our society's values. Liberal, conservative, or politically agnostic, it should be wholly apparent that we should not be governed by fear—the justification for ending a human life must be held to a higher standard.

We mourn the death of Trayvon Martin, and we hope for a day when our legal system is truly just. The hard work comes in actually bringing about that change.


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