A six-person Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who on February 26, 2012 shot to death Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American. The two crossed paths on a rainy night in a gated community in Sanford, Florida. What exactly happened we’ll never know—witness accounts of the altercation were sparse. What the jury decided, though, was that there was insufficient evidence to determine beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman did not act in self-defense when he killed Martin.
Florida prosecutors accused Zimmerman of profiling and following Martin as the latter was returning from a 7-Eleven to his father’s fiancée’s home. They presented the 29-year-old Zimmerman as an aggressor who got out of his vehicle with a gun (which he had a permit to carry) concealed in his waistband. They alleged that, despite the advice of a police dispatcher, he confronted Martin, who was simply minding his own business. Zimmerman’s attorneys painted a different picture, with Martin laying in wait and attacking Zimmerman. Both sides agreed that Zimmerman killed Martin—the issue was whether that killing was justified, either wholly or partially.
Prosecutors charged Zimmerman with second degree murder, which in Florida carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. They chose second degree murder rather than first degree murder because there was insufficient evidence of the premeditation required for murder in the first degree. Not having to prove premeditation, prosecutors still had to convince the jurors that Zimmerman’s actions showed a conscious disregard for Martin’s life. (For more on this concept, see Murder vs. Manslaughter: State of Mind.)
Second degree murder can be committed either by an intentional killing without premeditation, or by acting in a way that isn’t designed to kill, but is reasonably certain to kill or seriously harm someone. Statutes throughout the country use colorful descriptions in the attempt to capture the second-degree-murder state of mind, such as “abandoned and malignant heart” and “depraved mind.” An infamous example of second degree murder is the San Francisco dog mauling case. A jury convicted Marjorie Knoller, owner of two Presa Canario dogs that killed Diane Whipple in an apartment building. Knoller was found to have acted with a “conscious disregard for human life” by taking insufficient precautions with animals she knew to be so large, powerful, and violent.
In the Zimmerman trial, the jury was charged with determining whether the defendant acted with “a depraved mind without regard for human life”—whether he harbored “ill will, spite, or hatred.” If so, he had committed second degree murder. Ultimately, the jury determined that the prosecution hadn’t established that Zimmerman acted with this state of mind.
Jurors also had the option of convicting Zimmerman of manslaughter with a firearm, carrying a 30-year maximum prison term. Manslaughter has two fundamental branches, each of which requires a finding that the defendant killed the victim without justification.
Voluntary manslaughter is an intentional homicide that would constitute murder if not for mitigating circumstances. Significant provocation by Martin that caused Zimmerman to kill him “in the heat of passion” would have justified a voluntary manslaughter finding. Had Martin provoked Zimmerman into a fight and Zimmerman not needed the gun to defend himself, this verdict would have been appropriate.
Involuntary manslaughter, on the other hand, occurs when a defendant kills through a reckless act. The defendant must be more than negligent; an accidental killing through negligence does not arise to manslaughter. Zimmerman would have committed involuntary manslaughter if, for example, he hadn’t intended to kill Martin, but had used his gun so recklessly during the altercation that it discharged.
The jury determined that exactly what happened between Zimmerman and Martin was too uncertain for a manslaughter conviction, which also required proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
The jury’s third option was to find that Zimmerman killed Martin in self-defense.
A self-defense finding always requires an acquittal. But in reality, the Zimmerman jurors didn’t even need to conclude that he acted in self-defense in order to acquit him. In Florida and other jurisdictions, once a defendant presents enough evidence to allow for the possibility that he acted in self-defense, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he did not act in self-defense. This is exactly what happened at the Zimmerman trial.
Zimmerman would have acted in self-defense had he used a reasonable amount of force to protect himself from Martin, the aggressor. Florida law gives people even more leeway in defending themselves than defendants in other jurisdictions. Under the “stand your ground” doctrine, someone like Zimmerman need not retreat when threatened and can instead meet force with force. (Read more about “stand your ground.”) How much force is reasonable depends on the level of the aggressor’s force. But Zimmerman’s defense team didn’t rely on “stand your ground.” Rather, his lawyers argued that he had no option to retreat—they relied on a classic self-defense theory.
An account that Zimmerman gave police officers, if true, would have justified a self-defense acquittal. He claimed that Martin knocked him to the ground, punched him, and slammed his head into the pavement over and over again. Afraid for his life, Zimmerman reached for his gun and fired. The jurors apparently couldn’t rule out this version of events, or at least something close to it. And as long as they couldn’t, they had to acquit.