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Why the George Zimmerman Verdict was Just and How it Relates to Texas’ Self Defense Laws

Ever since receiving the jurors’ verdict in the George Zimmerman trial last week, it seems as though everyone in the world has become a legal and civil rights expert. Opinions and statements have run rampant and, as usual, the media is much to blame. That being said, this blog will not address all of the hoopla surrounding the trial. And, for good reason, it will not address the race of the defendant or the victim because it simply had absolutely nothing to do with the case or the verdict. Nor, did race have anything to do with the law that was applicable to the facts of the case.

And, I’ll repeat myself here just to make sure that I am abundantly clear. Unless you can articulate specific facts that tend to show that one or all of the members of the jury in the Zimmerman case were somehow racially biased, I don’t want to hear about race. The Zimmerman trial centered around one issue and one issue only…self defense. Therefore, this blog will serve to help people understand the facts of the case and how the applicable law applies to those facts which, in turn, may help people to understand how and why the jurors may have reached the verdict that they did in this highly-publicized case.

With that being said, it really doesn’t matter whether you like or dislike the self defense laws. But, you can’t form an educated opinion about the verdict in the Zimmerman trial without at least a partial grasp on how self defense laws work. And, it just so happens that the State of Texas’s self defense laws that govern the use of deadly force are substantially similar to Florida’s self defense laws.

The Use of Deadly Force in Collin County, Texas

In Texas, a person is justified in using deadly force against another when the actor reasonably believes the force is immediately necessary to protect the actor against the other’s use or attempted use of unlawful force and the actor reasonably believes that deadly force is immediately necessary to either protect the actor against the other’s use or attempted use of unlawful deadly force or to prevent the other’s imminent commission of aggravated kidnapping, murder, sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, robbery, or aggravated robbery. In addition, a person in Texas has no legal duty to try and retreat from an attack before using deadly force as long as he or she has the right to be present at the location where the force is used.

However, the use of deadly force against another is not justified in response to verbal provocation alone or if the actor provoked the other’s use or attempted use of unlawful force unless the actor abandons the encounter or clearly communicates to the other his intent to do so reasonably believing that he cannot safely abandon the encounter and the other nevertheless continues to use unlawful force against the actor.

Now, I know what you’re thinking? What does all this nonsense mean to someone who isn’t an attorney? Essentially, in order to use deadly force in Texas, a person must reasonably believe that his or her life is immediately being threatened by another person when he or she did not provoke the threat. Or, in the event that the actor did provoke the threat, if he or she clearly abandons the encounter or makes it known that he or she wishes to abandon the encounter and the other person continues their attack, the actor is then justified in using deadly force to the extent necessary to neutralize the attack.

Why did the Zimmerman Case go to Trial?

Before we go any further, it’s important to understand why the Zimmerman case went to trial in the first place. And, it went to trial because many of the facts surrounding the case were unclear, and they remain unclear to this day. If a case is either all black or all white, that means that there is little or no dispute over the facts of the case. For example, in a case where the facts are undisputed, and they tend to favor the State’s case, the defendant almost always enters a plea bargain in order to minimize the risks and consequences associated with losing at a trial on the matter. If, on the other hand, the facts are undisputed, and they tend to weaken the State’s case, the charge against the defendant is often times either substantially reduced or dismissed all together. But, if there is some gray area, and the facts of the case are unclear and disputed by each side, it often times goes to trial because neither side is willing to concede to the other which is exactly what happened in the Zimmerman case.

The Zimmerman Verdict Centered Around Whether or Not the Jury Believed that George Zimmerman Provoked the Attack that Led to the Death of Treyvon Martin

Here are the undisputed facts of the George Zimmerman case. On the night of February 26, 2012, Zimmerman called the police department’s non-emergency line to report a “suspicious person,” and the officials instructed him not to exit his vehicle or approach Treyvon Martin. Zimmerman, however, decided to foolishly ignore the officials’ instructions. He exited his vehicle, and he approached Martin. At the time, Martin was not acting in a suspicious way. He was simply walking home from a local convenience store while talking to his (girl)friend on his cell phone. Additionally, Martin was not carrying anything suspicious. It was later discovered that the only items he had on him at the time of the incident were a soft drink, some candy, a nominal amount of cash, and his cell phone. Therefore, he was not armed. Furthermore, Martin was 5’11” and 158 pounds while Zimmerman was 5’7″ and 185 pounds. Finally, a confrontation occurred that night in which Zimmerman ultimately shot and killed Martin. After the incident occurred, investigators did not find any blood on Martin’s hands after his death.

Zimmerman called the non-emergency police response line at 7:09 p.m., and the call ended at 7:13 p.m. The first responding police officer arrived on the scene at 7:17 p.m., by which time Trayvon Martin was already dead. Therefore, those 4 minutes between the time when Zimmerman’s call with the non-emergency line ended and when the first responding officer arrived on the scene ended up being the heart of the trial. The State argued that Zimmerman initiated the confrontation with Martin by pursuing him (which provoked Martin) and ultimately shooting him during an ensuing scuffle. The defense, however, countered that Zimmerman was merely acting as a concerned citizen on behalf of his community when Martin physically attacked him. Therefore, the ultimate question that the entire trial wound up centering around was…did Zimmerman provoke the confrontation which led to the death of Martin?

Did the Jury Return the Correct Verdict in the Zimmerman Case?

Well, it depends. It depends upon whether you (assuming that you are a reasonable person) would feel provoked by the fact that you were being followed through a neighborhood at night as you walked back from a convenience store to the place where you were staying. Did Zimmerman overstep his civic duty by pursuing Martin? Or, was he simply trying to maintain visual contact with Martin so that he could relay the information to the dispatcher? Were the words he recited to the non-emergency dispatcher as he pursued Martin offered out of aggression or frustration? Assuming Zimmerman did provoke the confrontation which led to Martin’s death, did he effectively communicate his desire to withdraw from the confrontation? And, if so, did Martin withdraw?

Quite likely, these are all questions you cannot answer without any degree of certainty. And, for good reason. Unless you were on the jury or present inside of the courtroom for each day of the trial proceedings, you have not been presented with all of the evidence concerning the facts of the case.

But, suppose you were on the jury. I mentioned earlier that this case was all about gray areas. The State’s prosecutor and Zimmerman’s attorneys could not definitively tell the jurors what happened during those 4 minutes from the time when Zimmerman’s call with the non-emergency dispatcher ended and the time when the first responding officer arrived on scene. Nobody could. Therefore, the jurors, as everyone else, could only speculate on what may have happened during those 4 critical minutes on the night of February 26, 2012.

So, was the jury’s verdict in the Zimmerman case correct? I don’t know. Nobody knows. But, was it just? Yes, because in order to find an individual who is charged with a criminal offense in the United States guilty, a jury must agree that the defendant committed the crime with which they are charged beyond a reasonable doubt. Perhaps the jury was split on whether or not Zimmerman provoked the confrontation which resulted in Treyvon Martin’s death. Maybe, the jury was 80% sure that Zimmerman provoked the attack. It is possible that they were even 90% sure. But, in the end, nothing the State presented to the jury overcame the presumption of innocence. And, the law dictates that, if the jury had any reasonable doubt, they were legally obligated to find George Zimmerman not guilty. And, they did.

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