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May 5, 2015

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Not an open-and-shut case

The first week of testimony in the George Zimmerman trial proved to be nothing short of fascinating.

On one level, the case is simple: If Zimmerman had not pursued — some say stalked — Trayvon Martin that dark, rainy night, Martin would still be alive.

That’s the logical argument. The legal one is more complex. The case, it seems to me, spins on some crucial questions, some of which we may never completely know the answers to:

What was it about Martin in particular that Zimmerman found “suspicious” in the first place? So far, there has been no testimony that Martin was doing anything other than walking slowly and talking on a phone to a girl, as teenage boys are wont to do. Did Zimmerman consider every person walking thusly in the neighborhood to be suspicious? If not, what made Martin different? Was some sort of bias at play, whether an explicit one or an implicit one?

Why did Zimmerman leave his car, armed with his gun, and follow Martin? When the dispatcher realized that Zimmerman was in pursuit and told him, “We don’t need you to do that,” did Zimmerman stop?

Did Martin know that he was being followed, as his friend Rachel Jeantel testified, and did he feel threatened by the stranger following him?

In fact, the threat levels are a larger, more complex issue altogether. Who felt threatened, the teenager with the candy and the soda or the man pursuing him with a gun and a live round in the chamber? The answer on the surface would seem obvious, but it’s possible that both felt some level of threat. It’s also possible that threat responses washed back and forth between them like water in a tub, neither of them knowing about the other what we know now: that Zimmerman was armed and Martin was not.

If Martin was running away, as both Zimmerman has said and Jeantel has testified, did he at some point stop fleeing, turn and approach Zimmerman?

There has been testimony establishing that there was some sort of verbal interaction between Zimmerman and Martin before a physical one. Who struck the first blow and why? If Martin struck the first blow, as the defense contends, could that be considered an act of self-defense?

Regardless of who struck the first blow, some testimony suggests that Martin was getting the best of Zimmerman. In that scenario, could the right to self-defense switch personage? Florida law seems to suggest it can. The law states that the use of force is not justified when a person “initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself, unless 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.”

Even assuming that Martin was winning a physical fight with Zimmerman, did Zimmerman “reasonably” believe that he was in “imminent danger of death or great bodily harm”? Zimmerman was injured, but how do you evaluate the degree of those injuries? Independent assessments may or may not deem Zimmerman’s injuries severe, but did Zimmerman, in the middle of the fight, believe them to be? Had Zimmerman “exhausted every reasonable means to escape”?

Who was yelling for help? Keep in mind that it is possible to be both winning a fight and simultaneously yelling for help.

During opening arguments, John Guy, a prosecutor, stated that investigators found none of Zimmerman’s blood on Martin’s hands or the cuffs of his sweatshirt. How will the defense explain that?

The bar may be high for the prosecution, but the logic is basic: there has been no suggestion or testimony that Trayvon Martin was doing anything wrong the night that George Zimmerman caught sight of him and grew wary of him, pursued him and came into contact with him.

Zimmerman set that night’s events in motion and rendered them still with the ring of a gunshot. Now, as Zimmerman sits in a Florida courtroom, Martin sleeps in a Florida grave. We will never hear Martin’s side of the story, the level of his fear or the feel of the bullet ripping through his body.

Morally, Zimmerman is by no means without guilt. Legally, it remains to be seen whether he will be found guilty of second-degree murder.

Charles Blow writes for The New York Times.

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  1. A human tragedy and travesty: An armed wanna-be cop shot dead a 19 year old young man who was on a walk in the rain. Being stalked, the young man kicked the living daylights out of the armed wanna-be cop. Who then, in turn, shot the youngster dead in self-defense. Call it what you like, it doesn't change the outcome.
    Carmine D

  2. Hmm, had Zimmerman not followed Martin none of this might have happened. Boy, that sounds suspiciously like "if she hadn't gone to the bar wearing skimpy clothing and flirting with strangers....she might not have gotten raped".

    Let's analyze the sequence of events that even Mr. Blow hypothesizes above:

    1. Martin walking in the rain - no crime
    2. Zimmerman follows him - no crime
    3. One of the two approaches the other - no crime
    4. Zimmerman asks Martin what he's doing - no crime
    5. Martin punches Zimmerman - CRIME

    It can not be argued that Martin acted in self defense at this point, even though Mr. Blow tries to ask that very question. As we have seen with a local case here in Las Vegas, punching someone who follows and/or verbally accosts you is NOT a valid self defense claim.

    The evidence makes it pretty clear that Martin did punch Zimmerman in the nose. Once that is established, the key thing to remember is that Zimmerman does not have to prove his innocence. The prosecution has to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

    So the standard isn't that the defense has to convince the jury that Zimmerman shot in self defense, all the defense has to do is establish a reasonable doubt on the matter.

    Unless something really surprising turns up in the rest of the trial, the fact that Martin injured Zimmerman pretty much establishes the reasonable possibility that Zimmerman acted in self defense to the standards of the law. As a result, if the jury were to find Zimmerman guilty, it is likely that the judge will be forced to set aside the verdict as a matter of law.

    Since testimony is far from over in the trial, it's premature to make any pronouncements....but with what's been presented so far by the prosecution they've pretty much established reasonable doubt already before the defense calls their first witness.

  3. "Hmm, had Zimmerman not followed Martin none of this might have happened."

    Zimmerman and all neighborhood watchers are told not to pursue, but report and let the professionals handle the situation and matter. The problem was the wanna-be armed cop called wolf so often, the pros shrugged him off. He took matters into his own hands and WILL suffer the consequences for his actions. Sadly these will never match the wrong he did which he will live with for the rest of his natural life.

    Carmine D

  4. Watching the Zimmerman trial, the defense attorney asked a former professor of Zimmerman about the doctrine of "stand your ground." Asked if a person has to wait until near dead to use deadly force, the professor said I urge against it. Zimmerman laughed out loud. It was funny to him! It was a joke to him. On trial for murder of a 17 year old, with friends and family of the deceased in the court room, and the defendant laughs! Shame on him.

    Carmine D

  5. Whoa, this matter is more than it seems, and the general public is owning it racially.

    Buy on the rumor, sell on the news, this story is made for TV, but not as you would think. This is a story that raises to the level of "the tail wagging the dog" and a long tail it is with the POTUS smack in the middle of it.

    The POTUS could have done the right thing by allowing the law to work in FL. but he had to get involved, appointing judicial muscle, to see to it that the flames of race could envelop these two groups- Blacks/Hispanics.

    The Republican media's portrayal of these two fellas characters' give a false image for the public to ponder, who side should I take in this matter. When the real issue has nothing to do with the loss of life, gun rights, or even race.

    This is a red herring ,if there ever was one to be had, a political football for monkeys to play with. The only reason this drama was presented with such fervor was to split the minority vote and the PBHO could lose.

    The real joke is that the PBHO bought into it and got involved siding with one group who incidentally is wrong, yet the lack of political prowess by the other group left the pundits in bewilderment, speechless to say a word of this emperor without cloths (POTUS without merit) issue.

    I suppose our American spring is just around the corner and this might just be the fuse.