Unless you went to bed at sundown last night, I'm sure that by now you have heard or read that George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the Trayvon Martin murder case.
If you are on Facebook, I'm sure that your computer screen is completely full of your friends expressing outrage over the verdict and declaring it to be racist. To read these types of statements coming from the general public is completely understandable.
To read them coming from criminal defense attorneys is completely inexcusable.
The fundamental principle in criminal law is that before a person accused can be convicted of a crime, it must be proven, by the evidence, to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt -- public perception of said crime and any other factor outside of that evidence be damned. Criminal defense attorneys celebrate that principle and hold out Atticus Finch as our role model of the lawyer who stood and fought for an unpopular cause he believed in.
The public will rant and rave against the verdict as they are wont to do, but any defense attorney who has ever tried a case involving a self-defense statute should understand.
We all know from high school civics or government class that before any jury can return a verdict of guilty, the case must be proven to them beyond a reasonable doubt. To many, the phrase "Beyond a reasonable doubt" is just a string of words told to a jury that mandate them to simply go figure out whether or not they think a person did what they are accused of. For those of us who practice criminal law, we know that those words set forth what is supposed to be a theoretically-near-insurmountable challenge to the Government to prove a case.
A person can't be convicted because a jury thinks the accused is "maybe" guilty, "probably" guilty, or even if they are "clearly convinced" of their guilt. The level of proof has to be so amazingly strong that the individual juror should be left with not a single reasonable doubt over whether or not the accused is guilty.
If you stop and think about it for a second, that's a huge burden for a prosecutor. At least, it is supposed to be.
In the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case, there was no dispute that Zimmerman had fired the fatal bullet that ended Martin's life. The question was whether or not he was acting in self-defense.
What many non-criminal lawyers don't know about criminal law and self-defense is that a person accused of an assaultive offense (from simple assault to murder) does not have to prove self-defense.
Process that for a minute before we go on.
A person accused of murder who claims self-defense does not have to prove that he acted in self-defense.
Rather, a person accused only needs to raise the issue that self-defense may be involved and then it becomes the prosecution's job to show that self-defense does not apply and to do so beyond a reasonable doubt. And if you think proving that a murder happened beyond a reasonable doubt is a difficult job for a prosecutor, it is simple compared to disproving self-defense.
As a prosecutor, I lost a case where a man claimed self-defense after running over and killing two alleged gang members in a parking lot. I tried the case against Eric Davis, who is an outstanding criminal defense attorney (NOTE: I didn't realize quite how outstanding until after he beat me in this case). I thought that Eric's claims that his client acted in self-defense were ridiculous. How could the driver of a truck claim he was acting in self-defense when he runs over and kills two unarmed men?
But at the end of the day, Eric raised the issue of self-defense and it was one that I could not successfully disprove beyond a reasonable doubt. His client was found not guilty.
In Eric's case, he didn't have a lot to work with (in my opinion) but he made it work anyway. I think that any defense attorney would have probably been much more comfortable to work with the self-defense factors that Zimmerman was able to claim. The fact that Zimmerman had injuries on his face and head are a tremendous piece of evidence of self-defense that a prosecutor has to overcome.
If one could remove the racial overtones of this case from it and assume for a moment that Trayvon Martin had been a white 17-year-old kid, I don't think any defense attorney I know would have shied away from trying it. I also can't imagine a prosecutor who would have wanted to try it.
But this trial was infused with racial tension from the start by the media. Was there racial hatred in George Zimmerman's heart when he walked out his door to confront Trayvon Martin? I have no idea. Maybe. Maybe not. Did he walk out that door just to gun down a 17-year-old, unarmed kid without provocation? I have no idea. Maybe. Maybe not. I kind of doubt it.
My personal belief is that George Zimmerman initiated a situation that rapidly got out of hand in a manner he had foolishly not anticipated. Is he morally responsible for what happened? That's a completely different question.
Under the Criminal Justice System, however, people aren't tried for their moral responsibility. They are tried for what can legally be proven against them. If at the end of testimony, the jury cannot figure out whether or not the self-defense claim was legitimate, then the legally correct verdict is "not guilty."
Unless the prosecution disproves it beyond a reasonable doubt, that is what they are bound to do.
Moral outrage is to be expected, but if anyone understands why the verdict happened, it should be lawyers.
Otherwise, we are just feeding into the same mob mentality that we are supposed to be fighting against every day.
NOTE: For additional reading, check out Brian Tannebaum's outstanding blog post this morning on The Embarrassment of the George Zimmerman Verdict.