The case against George Zimmerman, a 29 year old Hispanic male who shot Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old African American Male, did not produce a guilty verdict and has spawned a great deal of debate about the equality of justice and race and about Florida’s "Stand Your Ground Law. There have been nationwide protests over the verdict. Even the president has joined the conversation adding his comments about race in America. One entertainer has stated he plans to boycott the state of Florida and never play a concert here as long as Florida keeps the stand your ground law on the books. The eldest son of Martin Luther King Jr. suggested a boycott of Florida orange juice in protest of the state’s so-called "stand your ground" law. Interestingly the defense of George Zimmerman did not use the stand your ground law as a defense at trial. See this article in USA today; http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/07/15/stateline-zimmerman-stand-your-ground/2517507/
In this post I will discuss the legal reasons for the jury verdict. I am not taking a position about whether race did or did not play a part in this case. The legal aspects that I will discuss below would apply to any case regardless of the race of the defendant or victim, and did apply to the Zimmerman case.
George Zimmerman was charged by the special prosecutor with Second Degree Murder and in the alternative Manslaughter. This was the decision of the prosecutor and under our system of justice, the prosecutor is the only authority that can make the decision to charge individuals with crimes, and what crimes to charge.
According to the American Bar Association, there are standards for prosecutors to follow, below are two that are relevant to all criminal cases:
Standard 3- 1.2 The Function of the Prosecutor
(a) The office of prosecutor is charged with responsibility for prosecutions in its jurisdiction.
(b) The prosecutor is an administrator of justice, an advocate, and an officer of the court; the prosecutor must exercise sound discretion in the performance of his or her functions.
(c) The duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict.
Standard 3-3.9 Discretion in the Charging Decision
(a) A prosecutor should not institute, or cause to be instituted, or permit the continued pendency of criminal charges when the prosecutor knows that the charges are not supported by probable cause. A prosecutor should not institute, cause to be instituted, or permit the continued pendency of criminal charges in the absence of sufficient admissible evidence to support a conviction.
(b) The prosecutor is not obliged to present all charges which the evidence might support. The prosecutor may in some circumstances and for good cause consistent with the public interest decline to prosecute, notwithstanding that sufficient evidence may exist which would support a conviction.
In the Zimmerman case, the prosecutor determined that there were two possible charges that could be proven or which the evidence might support. Those charges were second degree murder and a lesser charge of manslaughter. The decision to charge these offenses was based upon a review of all available evidence at the time by Florida special prosecutor Angela Corey.
Below I have outlined the Florida Statutes on these two charges. Each charge is broken down into elements of the crime and there must be evidence to prove each and every element. I have added numbers in brackets to the charges to emphasize the elements that must be proven. The burden of proving each element is discussed further in this post.
Florida Statue 782.04 (2) Second Degree Murder.—
(1) The unlawful killing of a human being, (2) when perpetrated by any act imminently dangerous to another and (3) evincing a depraved mind (4) regardless of human life,(5) although without any premeditated design to effect the death of any particular individual, is murder in the second degree and constitutes a felony of the first degree, punishable by imprisonment for a term of years not exceeding life
Florida Statute 782.07 Manslaughter
(1)The killing of a human being by the (2) act, procurement, or culpable negligence of another, (3) without lawful justification (4) according to the provisions of chapter 776 and (5) in cases in which such killing shall not be excusable homicide or murder,(6) according to the provisions of this chapter, is manslaughter, a felony of the second degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.
THE BURDEN OF PROOF
In the Zimmerman case the State has the burden or proving each and every element of the crime that was charged. Failure to prove all the elements of the crime means that the State did not meet their burden and a not guilty verdict must be rendered by the jury.
In order to prove any case in court there are different burdens of proof. For example in a civil case the plaintiff must prove their case by a "Preponderance of the Evidence". This means evidence that has more convincing force than that opposed to it. If the evidence is so evenly balanced that such that neither side "preponderates" on an issue, the party who had the burden of proving it loses.
The next higher burden of proof is Clear and Convincing (higher). In some quasi-criminal matters the trier of fact must find that it is "highly probable" that the fact is true.
However these standards do not apply to a murder or manslaughter case, as in the Zimmerman prosecution, here the state has the highest burden "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt"
In all criminal cases, the state has the burden of proving every essential element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. This burden is constitutionally required by the 14th Amendment "Due Process" clause. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt defined as not a mere "possible doubt," but an abiding conviction of the truth of the charge after considering the entire case.
The prosecution cannot shift he Burden of Proof to the defendant. The overall burden to prove the defendant's guilt remains on the prosecution throughout the trial. It never shifts to the defendant to prove his/her innocence.
May the Burden shift on any issue? While the burden on an element of the crime may not shift to the defendant, the BOP on an affirmative defense may shift to the defendant. It depends on whether the issue is treated as an affirmative defense or rebuttal . In rebuttal of prosecution evidence- only the burden of going forward shifts- burden of proof does not shift.
WHY THE NOT GUILTY VERDICT
Jury deliberations are secret and we will never know what was said in that jury room. What we do know is the jury determined that the State failed to prove their case of Manslaughter or Second Degree Murder beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt. The burden remained on the state during the entire trial and never shifts to the defendant. The State must prove each and every element of the crime, and if the jury had any reasonable doubts about whether the state proved every element of the crime they have to acquit. The public and the media may want to believe that race played a part in this case, but that is simply speculation. We will never know what went on in that jury room, all we do know is that those jurors made a decision based upon the evidence presented at trial. The jury decided that the State had not proven their case. The State introduced a great deal of evidence that was probably not relevant, meaning that it did not tend to prove or disprove the elements of the crime charged. To the general public it may have appeared that the state had a strong case, however the only real question was whether the state introduced evidence that actually proved the elements of second degree murder or manslaughter. According to the jury they did not. There was justice in this case, the justice is part of the American Justice system where an accused is entitled to face their accusers and require the state to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This system of justice is there for all people, regardless of race, and we should not condemn the American Justice System, simply because we disagree with the verdict.
For more information or a free consultation on your legal issue contact Scott and Fenderson PLLC, your injury law, family law, and criminal defense attorneys, at 727-321-0099. http://www.scottandfenderson.com