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Zimmerman verdict: Legal experts say prosecutors overreached

A second-degree murder charge in the death of Trayvon Martin was impossible to prove, many agree. The Justice Department will continue its own investigation.

July 14, 2013|By David G. Savage and Michael Muskal
  • Supporters of Trayvon Martin's family listen Saturday night over their smartphones as the verdict is read in the George Zimmerman trial.
Supporters of Trayvon Martin's family listen Saturday night over… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

WASHINGTON — The jury's verdict to acquit George Zimmerman in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, a case that became a referendum on race and gun laws for many across the nation, did not turn on how those issues played out in court, legal experts said Sunday.

Instead, they said, the acquittal can probably be blamed on mistakes by prosecutors in bringing a murder charge they could not prove.

The Justice Department announced Sunday that it would continue its investigation of the case to determine whether any federal civil rights laws were violated in the shooting of Martin, 17, who was black. In a statement, the department noted that its jurisdiction is limited: "Experienced federal prosecutors will determine ... whether federal prosecution is appropriate in accordance with the department's policy governing successive federal prosecution after a state trial."

PHOTOS: George Zimmerman trial, aftermath

A federal prosecution could resurrect a case that many legal analysts said was doomed by Florida prosecutors' decision to pursue a hard-to-prove second-degree murder conviction against Zimmerman — responding to the recommendations of a special prosecutor appointed after a nationwide outcry over the youth's killing.

The nationally televised trial exposed the flaws of that decision and the weakness of the state's criminal case. Prosecutors could not prove Zimmerman was driven by "ill will or hatred" — the necessary elements of a murder case — when he got out of his vehicle on a rainy night and went after the teenager.

In the confrontation that followed, they also could not prove Zimmerman struck the first blow. If the teenager turned in fear to attack the stranger who was pursuing him, Zimmerman could claim he acted in self-defense. If the jurors were in doubt as to who struck first, they were obliged to hand down an acquittal.

That's why few criminal law experts were surprised by the verdict.

"The prosecutors made a tactical error by charging this as second-degree murder," said Charles H. Rose, a professor at Stetson University College of Law. "Their theory was that George Zimmerman picked out this young black kid and set out to do him harm. But at the trial, it became clear it didn't happen that way."

He pointed to evidence showing Zimmerman had been injured in the fight and that a witness who saw the two struggling said it appeared the teenager was on top. A defense pathologist testified the forensic evidence was consistent with Zimmerman's claim that Martin was on top and hitting him.

Rose said prosecutors might have succeeded had they charged Zimmerman from the start with manslaughter or assault. "Then you would be arguing that he was a wannabe cop who stepped over the line and did something stupid. That is very different than trying to prove he stalked Trayvon Martin with an intent to harm him."

Others were even more critical.

"We have elected prosecutors in this country, and this case was brought because of a political outcry," said Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz. "This case should never have been brought."

He said the evidence in the case pointed to "reasonable doubt," leaving no prospect that Zimmerman would be convicted on the murder charge. "There is no question we have a terrible history in this country involving black men, but that's not what happened in this case," he said.

George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley said the prosecutor went too far from the beginning. "I thought this was overcharging. There was never a basis for a second-degree murder charge," he said. "There is a high standard for proving that, and it did not fit the facts or the evidence. And by overcharging, she played into the hands of the defense."

In a news conference after the verdict, Angela B. Corey, the state's attorney who brought the charges, angrily denied the suggestion that Zimmerman was overcharged. "We charged what we had based on the facts of the case," she told reporters. "We truly believe the mind-set of George Zimmerman and the reason he was doing what he did fit the bill for second-degree murder."

Near the end of the trial, prosecutors urged the jury to convict Zimmerman of the lesser charge of manslaughter. But it was too late to re-focus the case, several experts said.

"Although the facts are tragic, I don't think they should have brought this as a murder case," said Laurie Levenson, a criminal law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "It would have been more plausible to argue that Zimmerman was grossly negligent and that he brought on the confrontation." But even so, she said, the defendant could have claimed he acted in self-defense when he shot the teenager.

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