Deserved trial leads to troubling verdict

Because of the reckless actions of George Zimmerman, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin died, fatally shot by Mr. Zimmerman on Feb. 26, 2012. The teenager was doing nothing illegal when Mr. Zimmerman decided to track him - in the process ignoring a police dispatcher's instructions "we don't need you to do that" - and the teen was unarmed.

Had Mr. Zimmerman not crossed the line from neighborhood watch volunteer to armed vigilante, had he followed the dispatcher's instructions and allowed police in Sanford to handle the matter, Trayvon Martin would almost certainly still be alive. Given those facts, it is terribly unfair that Mr. Zimmerman should walk from a Florida courtroom acquitted of any criminal wrongdoing by the six-person jury.

But criminal trials do not always produce "fair" outcomes. Results often have more to do with the skill of the lawyers, the strength of witnesses and the niceties of the law than they do with probity. In the end the prosecution was unable to make a convincing criminal case out of Mr. Zimmerman's actions and their tragic results.

It took six weeks, and intense public pressure in the form of nationwide demonstrations and critical editorial commentary, before the special prosecutor named to the case, Angela B. Corey, announced the filing of the charge of second-degree murder against Mr. Zimmerman for fatally shooting Mr. Martin in the chest.

If the initial decision by police and a prosecutor not to charge Mr. Zimmerman with anything was derelict, the murder charge was arguably an overreach. It required the prosecution to prove Mr. Zimmerman acted with evil intent, hatred or spite. The evidence at trial did not indicate that, instead presenting the defendant as a misguided, self-styled avenger who, convinced the hoodie-wearing teen must have done something, was intent on not letting him "get away."

As the trial neared its end, the judge allowed jurors to also consider a lesser charge of manslaughter - unlawful killing without malicious aforethought - but in the opinion of the jury the prosecution fell short proving even that.

In the end the state could not meet its high burden of proving criminal intent beyond a reasonable doubt. The accounts of who began the fight after Mr. Zimmerman and Mr. Martin confronted one another, of who had the upper hand in the confrontation and who shouted what, were muddled and contradictory.

A key prosecution witness, medical examiner Dr. Shiping Bao, came across as unsure of his facts and ill prepared. The defense's forensic expert, Dr. Vincent Di Maio, appeared cool, and was confident and concise in his conclusion that the defendant was under attack. On such things do trials often turn.

The jury gave Mr. Zimmerman the benefit of the doubt that he feared for his life when and fired in self-defense.

Interestingly, Florida's controversial "Stand Your Ground" law, which allows people who fear harm not to retreat, was not a factor in the trial. Yet it remains a terrible law, one that encourages vigilantism. Traditional self-defense law, requiring individuals to retreat from a confrontation if at all possible before turning to deadly force, is the far better standard.

It is difficult to say what role race played in these events, yet it is hard to imagine that an armed, young black man, pursuing and fatally shooting an unarmed light-skinned Hispanic adult after a struggle, would walk free.

Federal authorities could pursue a civil-rights criminal prosecution, but proving this was a racially motivated hate crime would be difficult and we would urge prosecutors to proceed cautiously, if at all. The family of Mr. Martin could find some justice in pursuing a civil wrongful death claim.

In the wake of a young man's death came cries of injustice from across the country. The people got the trial they demanded, a trial that was appropriate. No one can demand an outcome.

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