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October 7, 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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