Would George Zimmerman have been acquitted in every state?

Rick Moran
The Atlantic's Andrew Cohen raises some interesting questions:

So the murder trial of George Zimmerman did not allow jurors to deliberate over the fairness of Florida's outlandishly broad self-defense laws. It did not allow them debate the virtues of the state's liberal gun laws or its evident tolerance for vigilantes (which we now politely call "neighborhood watch"). It did not permit them to delve into the racial profiling that Zimmerman may have engaged in or into the misconduct and mischief that Martin may have engaged in long before he took that fatal trip to the store for candy. These factors, these elements, part of the more complete picture of this tragedy, were off-limits to the ultimate decision-makers.

What the verdict says, to the astonishment of tens of millions of us, is that you can go looking for trouble in Florida, with a gun and a great deal of racial bias, and you can find that trouble, and you can act upon that trouble in a way that leaves a young man dead, and none of it guarantees that you will be convicted of a crime. But this curious result says as much about Florida's judicial and legislative sensibilities as it does about Zimmerman's conduct that night. This verdict would not have occurred in every state. It might not even have occurred in any other state. But it occurred here, a tragic confluence that leaves a young man's untimely death unrequited under state law. Don't like it? Lobby to change Florida's laws.

If we understand and accept these legal limitations -- and perhaps only if we do -- the result here makes sense. Purely as a matter of law, you could say, it makes perfect sense. Florida's material, admissible, relevant proof against Zimmerman was not strong enough to overcome the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The eye-witnesses (and ear-witnesses) did not present a uniformly compelling case against the defendant. The police witnesses, normally chalk for prosecutors, did not help as much as they typically do. Nor was there compelling physical evidence establishing that Zimmerman had murderous intent and was not acting in self-defense.

The case was "not about standing your ground; it was about staying in your car," the prosecutor cogently said during closing argument. But in the end, under state law favorable to men like the defendant -- that is, favorable to zealots willing to take the law into their own hands -- Zimmerman's series of deplorable choices that night did not amount to murderous intent or even the much more timid manslaughter.

One of the great strengths of our federal system is that individual states are allowed to define things like self-defense according to local community standards. In a continental country, a one size fits all legal code couldn't possibly work. People, to state the obvious, are different.Your average Floridian has a far different opinion about guns in society than your average New Yorker. Even issues like personal safety might vary from state to state, region to region.

I'm pretty sure if the Zimmerman-Martin incident had occurred in Illinois, a good prosecutor would have convicted George Zimmerman of manslaughter. My understanding is that self defense in Illinois is predicated on the level of force necessary to protect oneself. Since Trayvon Martin did not have a gun, the prosector's argument would be that Zimmerman used an unacceptable level of force to protect himself. And an Illinois jury could easily have seen it that way.

Similarly, I imagine in Texas, or Louisiana, or some other Southern state, Zimmerman would have had a better chance of being acquitted. That's the point that Cohen misses. Florida's self defense statute may be "outlandishly broad" to him but I would imagine to most people in Florida, it sounds about right.

Cohen's rather dramatic interpretation of the facts as we know them - that Zimmerman went "looking for trouble" and that neighborhood watch participants are "vigilantes" -  is more evidence of a regional bias at work in the author's writing. Perhaps citizens in New York are more comfortable waiting for police to show up and save their property - or their lives - than in empowering their neighbors to proactively prevent crime. Given the draconian restrictions on guns in New York, that attitude would seem to work for local residents and is an acceptable, if incomprehensible to many, opinion to hold.

It's hard to extrapolate what might have happened in a Zimmerman trial in Boston, or New Orleans, or Chicago. It's even difficult to imagine what might have happened with a different prosecutor and judge in Florida. I think that part of Mr. Cohen's argument is sound. There are many who are unhappy with the verdict, but that would have been the case if Zimmerman had been found guilty too. In the end, we are left with a decision by a jury of Mr. Zimmerman's peers viewing the evidence and testimony through local eyes, and with local sensibilities.

That continues to be one of our great strengths as a country.

The Atlantic's Andrew Cohen raises some interesting questions:

So the murder trial of George Zimmerman did not allow jurors to deliberate over the fairness of Florida's outlandishly broad self-defense laws. It did not allow them debate the virtues of the state's liberal gun laws or its evident tolerance for vigilantes (which we now politely call "neighborhood watch"). It did not permit them to delve into the racial profiling that Zimmerman may have engaged in or into the misconduct and mischief that Martin may have engaged in long before he took that fatal trip to the store for candy. These factors, these elements, part of the more complete picture of this tragedy, were off-limits to the ultimate decision-makers.

What the verdict says, to the astonishment of tens of millions of us, is that you can go looking for trouble in Florida, with a gun and a great deal of racial bias, and you can find that trouble, and you can act upon that trouble in a way that leaves a young man dead, and none of it guarantees that you will be convicted of a crime. But this curious result says as much about Florida's judicial and legislative sensibilities as it does about Zimmerman's conduct that night. This verdict would not have occurred in every state. It might not even have occurred in any other state. But it occurred here, a tragic confluence that leaves a young man's untimely death unrequited under state law. Don't like it? Lobby to change Florida's laws.

If we understand and accept these legal limitations -- and perhaps only if we do -- the result here makes sense. Purely as a matter of law, you could say, it makes perfect sense. Florida's material, admissible, relevant proof against Zimmerman was not strong enough to overcome the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The eye-witnesses (and ear-witnesses) did not present a uniformly compelling case against the defendant. The police witnesses, normally chalk for prosecutors, did not help as much as they typically do. Nor was there compelling physical evidence establishing that Zimmerman had murderous intent and was not acting in self-defense.

The case was "not about standing your ground; it was about staying in your car," the prosecutor cogently said during closing argument. But in the end, under state law favorable to men like the defendant -- that is, favorable to zealots willing to take the law into their own hands -- Zimmerman's series of deplorable choices that night did not amount to murderous intent or even the much more timid manslaughter.

One of the great strengths of our federal system is that individual states are allowed to define things like self-defense according to local community standards. In a continental country, a one size fits all legal code couldn't possibly work. People, to state the obvious, are different.Your average Floridian has a far different opinion about guns in society than your average New Yorker. Even issues like personal safety might vary from state to state, region to region.

I'm pretty sure if the Zimmerman-Martin incident had occurred in Illinois, a good prosecutor would have convicted George Zimmerman of manslaughter. My understanding is that self defense in Illinois is predicated on the level of force necessary to protect oneself. Since Trayvon Martin did not have a gun, the prosector's argument would be that Zimmerman used an unacceptable level of force to protect himself. And an Illinois jury could easily have seen it that way.

Similarly, I imagine in Texas, or Louisiana, or some other Southern state, Zimmerman would have had a better chance of being acquitted. That's the point that Cohen misses. Florida's self defense statute may be "outlandishly broad" to him but I would imagine to most people in Florida, it sounds about right.

Cohen's rather dramatic interpretation of the facts as we know them - that Zimmerman went "looking for trouble" and that neighborhood watch participants are "vigilantes" -  is more evidence of a regional bias at work in the author's writing. Perhaps citizens in New York are more comfortable waiting for police to show up and save their property - or their lives - than in empowering their neighbors to proactively prevent crime. Given the draconian restrictions on guns in New York, that attitude would seem to work for local residents and is an acceptable, if incomprehensible to many, opinion to hold.

It's hard to extrapolate what might have happened in a Zimmerman trial in Boston, or New Orleans, or Chicago. It's even difficult to imagine what might have happened with a different prosecutor and judge in Florida. I think that part of Mr. Cohen's argument is sound. There are many who are unhappy with the verdict, but that would have been the case if Zimmerman had been found guilty too. In the end, we are left with a decision by a jury of Mr. Zimmerman's peers viewing the evidence and testimony through local eyes, and with local sensibilities.

That continues to be one of our great strengths as a country.