Zimmerman Trial - The Law

by Paul Siciliano

Since court is not in session today and it is still a little early for Independence Day celebrations, I wanted to explore the legal matters in this case, because I think much of that gets lost during the televised coverage of the trial.  As in the Casey Anthony trial, I believe a great deal of the television commentary is doing a disservice and gives people the wrong impression of the legal system and what is actually occurring at trial.  (The same is not as true with the Jodi Arias trial, because it was a factually interesting story but not really a complicated legal one.) 

When examining the Zimmerman trial, we need to keep in mind two separate questions: 

  1. Does Zimmerman's act of homicide constitute 2nd degree murder or manslaughter (which is the lesser included offense which I am sure will be part of the jury instructions)?
  2. Is Zimmerman's act of homicide justified because it was done in self defense (justifiable homicide)? 

Let's begin with the homicide itself.  Under Florida law, 2nd degree murder is: 

The unlawful killing of a human being when perpetrated by any act imminently dangerous to another and evincing a depraved mind regardless of human life although without any premeditated design to effect the death of any particular individual. . .

Manslaughter is: 

The killing of a human being by the act, procurement, or culpable negligence of another, without lawful justification . . . and in cases in which such killing shall not be excusable homicide or murder . . . is manslaughter

I believe there is little doubt that Zimmerman's actions that night (finding Martin suspicious for little cause, following Martin even though you have contacted the police, having a loaded weapon, not identifying yourself to Martin when confronted) rises to the level of negligence necessary to find manslaughter.  A reasonable person would not have done what Zimmerman had done.   

The issues as to whether Zimmerman's culpability rise to the level of 2nd degree murder is dicier.  Did Zimmerman have that depraved mind when he shot Martin that night?  There is evidence of ill will - he profiled Martin as suspicious (and we can all draw a conclusion as to why), he dehumanized Martin (referring to him as "these" people, fucking punks, assholes, the "suspect").  For second degree murder, it does not matter if you intended to kill Martin (that is first degree murder) - it comes down to what was in the defendant's mind at the time of the homicide.  Personally, I believe, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Zimmerman's dehumanizing of Martin (which still continues) and targeting of him based on assumptions (and some of those assumptions are based on Martin's demographics) constitutes a depraved mind.  Zimmerman never saw Martin as an individual who was on the phone with a friend on his way back from 7-11, hanging out to get away from the rain.  Zimmerman could not think of Martin as anything other than a suspect.  To me, that is a depraved mind; even if he was doing it because he thought he was a police officer.  The difference is, police officers are trained, and I believe Semino's testimony that he would not have stopped and questioned Martin under similar circumstances is powerful. 

Whether it was 2nd degree murder or manslaughter, we still need to address whether it was justifiable as an act of self defense.  Under Florida law, a person is justified in using deadly force when: 

He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself. . .

Even an aggressor is justified in using deadly force when: 

Such force is 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.

By the way, this is why Zimmerman did not rely on the "Stand Your Ground" defense.  With "Stand Your Ground", you are not required to retreat unless you are the aggressor.  Why take the more exacting standard, especially when you can be found to be the aggressor in this conflict?

With respect to self defense, this is when we try to discern what exactly happened after the two met one another.  We have Zimmerman's account of what occurred.  And, even though the burden is on the State, do we believe what Zimmerman said?  Is Zimmerman's story consistent?  Is Zimmerman's injuries consistent with what he said?  Does other evidence (eyewitness testimony, forensic evidence, evidence found at the scene) corroborate Zimmerman's story?  Has Zimmerman been honest or dishonest otherwise? 

If you are able to call Zimmerman's account as unreliable, his claim of self defense falls.  And, his account is unreliable for several reasons I have mentioned before, but, once again will highlight some: 

  1. In his initial statements to police, Zimmerman stated the initial punch from Trayvon Martin knocked him to the ground and that is when Martin got on top of Martin and started smashing his head.  During the re-enactment, Zimmerman claims the punch did not knock him to the ground and the two scuffled for 20 feet until somehow Martin got the best of him.  It is crucial to know where the physical altercation began because it goes to whether Zimmerman continued to follow Martin.
  2. The location of Martin's cell phone (combined with Jeantel's testimony) and Zimmerman's flashlight indicate that the physical confrontation began behind John Good's house and not the intersection of the T.  When you combine that with Zimmerman's conflicting statements, it is beyond a reasonable doubt that the fight started behind John Good's house.  (I know there is ear witness testimony of the altercation moving from right to left.  But, these people who heard that were in the front of their homes when the altercation began and moved to the back as the altercation continued.  The direction the sound was coming while in the front of the home is unreliable since they were in end units and the sound could have been bouncing off other homes.)
  3. Zimmerman's injuries are not consistent with someone who has had his head bashed on the pavement such that he thought he was going to become unconscious.  The injuries also do not show someone who has been repeatedly punched or smothered.  Look at Rihanna's injuries.  You would expect extensive bruising, especially to the back of the head.  You would expect a concussion.  You would see dizziness, nausea, something - it is concrete.  Yes, Zimmerman has some swelling, a couple of minor cuts and a good punch at the bridge of the nose, but that is not consistent with his story. 
  4. There is little to no forensic/DNA evidence to corroborate his story.  While the lack of such evidence is not definitive, it is a strong indication that his account is a fabrication.  (This goes to the weight of the evidence or lack thereof.) 
  5. Zimmerman casually lied on television about not knowing the "Stand Your Ground" laws.  The ease with which he said that lie is telling because it was with the same ease he recounted what happened that night.  And how do we know he is lying?  The man is interested in criminal justice, he took a course where it was discussed, he owns a concealed firearm so you have to know they are going to teach you what is self defense.
  6. Another part of his story that is uncorroborated, and actually conflicts with the evidence, is what Zimmerman claims happened after he shot Martin.  Somehow (again for a person as detailed as Zimmerman, he skips over important details), Zimmerman gets disentangled from the now-shot Martin, gets on Martin's back and spreads his arm.  While doing this, an on-looker appears and Zimmerman asks him to help detain Martin.  Martin's hands were found under his body and that on-looker, John Manalo, did not testify that is what happened.  Manalo testified that he found Zimmerman walking towards him near the intersection of the T, making a phone call (to non-emergency dispatch).  Why is Zimmerman calling non-emergency dispatch instead of 911. 

There is additional inconsistencies here.  Point is, I do not believe Zimmerman's account, and since the evidence does not show me he was reasonably in imminent fear of death or great bodily harm, he cannot avail himself of the self-defense justification.  Also, I believe, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Zimmerman was the aggressor since he approached Martin with a concealed weapon (which I believe was out) so his duty was even higher and that was not met. 

Regardless, this would make a great question on a criminal law exam in law school, and I would not be surprised if a similar fact pattern has not already appeared on such tests.