Black legal experts have conflicting opinions on the outcome of the trial of George Zimmerman, who was accused of killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin during an altercation on the night of Feb. 26, 2012, in Sanford, Fla.
A six-member, all-female jury comprising five Whites and one Hispanic on July 13 acquitted the 29-year-old on the charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter in the shooting death of the unarmed Black teen.
The verdict has spawned both satisfaction and outrage, with crowds taking to the streets around the country, decrying the case’s underlying issues of racial profiling and equal justice.
“A lot of people in our (the Black) community are still stunned by the outcome, including me,” said Glenn Ivey, 52, former state’s attorney for Prince George’s County, Md. “I never thought they would get a second-degree murder charge out of this but I thought there was enough information to support manslaughter.”
Most legal experts agree that second-degree murder was a stretch, given the evidence. But some, unlike Ivey, said even a manslaughter conviction was too much to hope for.
“I didn’t think there was any chance for Trayvon to get justice,” said Warren Brown, a well-known criminal defense lawyer, who has practiced in Baltimore for 33 years. He added, “And unfortunately what happened to Trayvon happens all the doggone time in thousands of cases per week in courts around the country. It is reality.”
Some of the experts agreed that race had a significant, though insidious, role in the case’s result.
“Even though race was never explicitly mentioned, it was pretty obvious that it was on everyone’s mind. It was the elephant in the room for sure, and the defense took advantage of that,” said Ivey, also a former federal prosecutor, who is currently practicing criminal defense law with a Washington, D.C.-based firm. “If this had been the other way around, if Trayvon Martin had been accused of killing George Zimmerman and had stood trial before an all-White jury, Martin would have been convicted, at least on manslaughter.”
A. Dwight Pettit, a renowned Black attorney who has practiced law in Baltimore for four decades, agreed that race played a role, as evidenced in the jury selection, which he believes was a pivotal factor to the trial’s outcome.
“I may be from the old school, but I believe when you step across certain lines into these jurisdictions, justice changes dramatically,” the 67-year-old civil rights and criminal defense attorney said. “From the beginning I felt they had a difficult time in that jurisdiction empanelling a jury of Trayvon’s peers.”
William "Billy" Murphy, senior partner of Murphy, Falcon and Murphy said: "One of the problems with the Trayvon Martin case was that not enough Blacks who live in that jurisdiction were called for jury duty or participated in the process. To what extent then must we take responsibility for that jury being all-White?"
"If a man is 95 percent guilty then he's supposed to get off–that's the way the American justice system works. there must not be a reasonable doubt," Murphy said. "You take that, plus the stand your ground law, and it's a party."
"Since none of us were there, the prosecutor has to recreate what happened beyond a reasonable doubt," he said.
A. Scott Bolden, managing partner with the D.C.-based law firm Reed Smith, disagreed that the racial makeup of the jury necessarily impacted the outcome.
The six jurors all showed evidence of being “thoughtful” and “hard-working” he said, given their requests to review evidence and their questions about the charges during deliberation.
The problem, he said, was the lack of solid witnesses. Several of the state’s witnesses even proved counterproductive to their case, such as the witnesses who waffled on whether the voice heard screaming on the tape was Trayvon’s.
“The prosecution had a very tough case because there were no witnesses that could say definitively that happened during this altercation,” Bolden said. “The only witness they had left was Zimmerman – Trayvon Martin was dead – and Zimmerman refused to take the stand.”
The prosecution made a “calculated” decision to play Zimmerman’s taped interviews in an attempt to undermine his credibility. But, without an actual cross-examination, it was difficult to do so, experts said.
“I think if the prosecution had forced Zimmerman to take the stand, and if they did a good job cross-examining him, the case could have turned out differently,” Bolden concluded.
The prosecution made several missteps, many of the legal experts agreed, beginning with the initial investigation.
“There was a lot of damage that had already been done before the case came to trial,” Brown said.
“The decision of the prosecution, initially, was not to bring charges. So when they decided to prosecute the case, they were stuck with the mess they had already created.”
Given the dearth of evidence collected and the conflicting testimony given by the witnesses, the prosecutors essentially were “trying to fit a square peg into a round hole,” Brown said.
“The jury had to determine if the state proved its proposition beyond a reasonable doubt. [But] this case was rigged with reasonable doubt about what happened, and without that clarity, the jury had no choice but to check off ‘not guilty,’” the 60-year-old attorney added.
With Zimmerman’s acquittal in the criminal trial, Martin’s parents could seek justice for their son’s slaying in a civil suit.
“The civil case is really a better venue to determine the truth of what occurred,” Bolden said. “Zimmerman’s credibility would be severely tested” during deposition and testimony.
Alternatively, other activists are pursuing other means of correcting what they see as a wrong.
The NAACP has launched a petition calling on the Justice Department to file civil charges against Zimmerman. The petition, which is also posted on the website of MoveOn.org, had almost a half-million signatures as of July 16.
“It is time for the Department of Justice to act,” read the online petition addressed to Attorney General Eric Holder, which was posted right after the verdict was announced.
“The most fundamental of civil rights — the right to life — was violated the night George Zimmerman stalked and then took the life of Trayvon Martin,” it continued.
“We ask that the Department of Justice file civil rights charges against Mr. Zimmerman for this egregious violation.”
Bolden said if the department agrees, it would likely charge Zimmerman with criminal violation of Trayvon’s civil rights under Title 42, the hate crime statute.
“Given their resources, the fact that the charges would be different and racial profiling would be front and center, their case could be more successful,” Bolden said.
Brown, however, said the evidence and witnesses testimonies are still too spotty for a successful conviction.
“I don’t think the Justice Department will take it,” he said. “I don’t think any lawyer who looks at the evidence and the witnesses would take on this case.”