Trials are supposed to provide closure, at least for someone. A Florida jury’s decision to acquit George Zimmerman on Saturday won’t come close to doing that.
Too many people want more satisfaction from the verdict than any jury could have delivered. The unprovable murder charge didn’t address what could be proven: the aggressive and reckless course Zimmerman took when he set in motion the fatal confrontation.
There were two different cases here – one that played out in the justice system, another that played out in the court of public opinion.
In the initial media narrative, a white man arbitrarily gunned down a black kid for doing nothing more than walk through the neighborhood with a package of Skittles in his pocket. It sounded like a reprise of the 1955 Emmett Till atrocity, in which a 14-year-old Chicago boy was beaten to death in Mississippi for no reason beyond the color of his skin.
The actual criminal proceedings kept spitting out complicating details. Martin turned out to be a good-sized young man who could handle himself in a fight. There was evidence – including head wounds – consistent with Zimmerman’s account of being beaten by Martin. A credible eyewitness put Martin on top of Zimmerman, throwing punches.
It was important that the trial be held. Black Americans in this country – such as Emmett Till – have been targeted and killed by vigilantes too often to count. Justice had to take its course.
But in the courtroom itself, Zimmerman, like anyone charged with murder, deserved the presumption of innocence. The prosecution turned out to have a wobbly case that was undermined by some of its own witnesses.
Juries are not charged with righting historical wrongs or championing crime victims. Their job is to study the evidence, listen carefully to testimony and arguments, and follow the judge’s instructions. These jurors – given the facts available to them – reached a reasonable verdict.
The travesty lay outside the murder charge. Zimmerman could have simply driven home after spotting and reporting Martin. The dispatcher advised him to do just that. But Zimmerman was clearly boiling with anger against “the f---ing punks,” and he chose to follow trouble while carrying a loaded gun.
In the final struggle, Zimmerman appears to have shot in self-defense. Still, he created the circumstances without which the struggle couldn’t have happened. That’s apparently not a crime. Perhaps it should be.