WASHINGTON – The jury’s verdict to acquit George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin can probably be blamed on prosecutorial overreaching, legal experts said Sunday.
The case, they say, 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 in the wake of a nationwide outcry over the youth’s killing.
The 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.”
Near the end of the trial, prosecutors urged the jury to convict Zimmerman of the lesser charge of manslaughter. But it was too late then to refocus 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.”