I am not surprised George Zimmerman was acquitted. While juries are inherently unpredictable, and I never “root” for any side, Zimmerman’s acquittal came as no surprise because of a number of things that happened at this trial, none of which I had ever seen before, and all of which favored the defense.
Prosecution’s Witnesses Undercut the Prosecution’s Case
The prosecution needed to prove that George Zimmerman acted with ill will, hatred, or spite. However, its own witness, Detective Doris Singleton testified that Zimmerman did not appear to exhibit these qualities. I have tried cases where I had to show defendants acted intentionally, or recklessly, or with depravity, and never once did I have a case where my own witness completely contradicted what I myself was legally required to prove.
Prosecution’s Witness Said He Believed the Defendant
I have never seen a case where the prosecution’s own witness said, point-blank, “I believed the defendant’s story.” Folks, this is unheard of. And yet it happened in this case, said Detective Christopher Serino. The testimony was ultimately stricken from the record, but, as we say in the trial biz, “You can’t unring the bell.”
This was devastating for the prosecution.
Another Witness Corroborated Zimmerman’s Version of Events
John Good, a witness called by the prosecution, testified he saw Trayvon Martin straddling George Zimmerman, totally undercutting the state’s case and fully corroborating Zimmerman’s version.
When the prosecution’s only path to victory necessitates that it convince the jury to disregard the testimony of many of his own witnesses, well, then you know it’s in big, big trouble.
There were numerous other facts that emerged at trial to corroborate Zimmerman’s version of events, or undercut the prosecution’s attempt to portray Zimmerman as a racist vigilante. Murderers, for example, generally don’t summon the police to the scene minutes before their crime; they don’t commit a murder when they know the cops are on the way; they don’t make numerous voluntary statements without ever asking for a lawyer; they don’t have visible injuries that corroborate their version of events; and they don’t say, “Thank God,” when being (falsely) told by a detective that the whole thing was caught on video. But the testimony of the witnesses for the prosecution also weakened its case.
In his statement to police and in an interview with Sean Hannity, George Zimmerman outlined out the elements of a valid self-defense claim.
Ultimately, the Hannity interview was played to the jury, and because it was played, Zimmerman’s defense team wisely realized that Zimmerman had no need to testify at trial, thereby allowing him to avoid the risks associated with cross-examination. We now know from the verdict, the jury apparently did credit his version as true.
But surprisingly, the prosecution put all of Zimmerman’s statements into evidence, underestimating perhaps, how influential they would be to the jury.
As a prosecutor, I put many incriminating statements — confessions — into evidence, but never would I have used a self-serving statement that made out all the elements of a legally recognized defense.
The Racial Profiling Argument
The prosecution spent a lot of time and effort attempting to prove that George Zimmerman engaged in racial profiling and showing that none of this would have occurred if Zimmerman had not profiled Martin.
But even if both of those statements are entirely true, that’s not enough to convict Zimmerman — a jury could conclude that Zimmerman had initially followed Trayvon Martin because of race, and but for that motivation, this confrontation would never have occurred, and yet still have found Zimmerman acted in self-defense.
Of course this is what makes the outcome understandably disappointing to many people: A man who seems to have acted with improper motives, and whose improper motives led to the deadly confrontation, can still be found not guilty.
It may well be the case that Trayvon Martin would be alive today if he had been a white kid walking home that night. It may well be that the detectives and ultimately the jury would have been less inclined to believe George Zimmerman’s self-defense claim if Trayvon Martin had been white. We will never know for sure.
The jury’s verdict does not address those other questions, but the verdict was not supposed to address those issues.
Elliot Felig was an assistant district attorney from 1996–2009 in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, and a homicide prosecutor from 2003–2009. He has a private practice in New York.