Many legal analysts appear to be bashing the prosecution and supporting
the defense. Legal speculators from across the board have proclaimed the
"state has no case." From the public's perspective something
has to seem amiss. It begs the question, would the State of Florida file
criminal charges against George Zimmerman if the case cannot be proven?
From a review of the known evidence (or lack thereof) it appears that
the question must be answered in the affirmative.
So what exactly is the problem with the state's case? Two words: Reasonable Doubt.
For the purpose of this discussion, let us assume that George Zimmerman
did in fact commit 2nd degree murder so that we may remove the word 'innocent'
from our consideration. We are observing a criminal trial and 'innocent'
has no place in the courtroom. The Jury must determine if the defendant
is 'Guilty' or 'Not Guilty.' It does not matter if George
Zimmerman is innocent or not. Not Guilty does not equal innocence. Not
Guilty means that the state has failed to prove that, 'beyond a reasonable
doubt', the defendant committed the crime charged.
So what exactly is this 'Beyond a Reasonable doubt' burden that
legal analysts predict will give the prosecution such grief? It is the
standard of proof required in all criminal cases in order for a jury to
reach a verdict of guilty. The best way to understand what beyond a reasonable
doubt is, is to understand what it is not. Beyond a reasonable doubt is
not the same standard of proof required by its sister standard by 'preponderance
of the evidence' which is the standard of proof used in many civil
trials. Proof by preponderance of the evidence means a party has presented
enough evidence to tip the scales in their favor. Essentially, when the
parties have completed the trial, if the jury believes one party more
than the other (51% vs. 49%) they should enter a verdict in their favor.
In other words, if the jury 'thinks' the civil defendant is "guilty"
then they should enter a verdict against him. The same does NOT hold true
in a criminal case. In a criminal case, even if the jury truly believes
the defendant committed the crime, if they have any reasonable doubt,
they must enter a verdict of not guilty. This is not a question of whether
or not the jury believes Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin but whether
or not the state has proved it.
To highlight just how high this burden is, allow us to contrast it against
another civil burden of proof: by 'clear and convincing evidence.'
Proof by clear and convincing evidence is a higher standard of proof than
by preponderance of the evidence. For example, it is a standard of proof
used in withdrawal of life support cases. When a hospital wishes to obtain
a court order allowing a physician to take a patient off life support
they must prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that the life is no
longer sustainable. Beyond a reasonable doubt is an even higher standard
of proof than by clear and convincing evidence. So in sum, the burden
to convict a person of a crime is higher than that of which is required
to terminate a life. There is no higher burden in our legal system.
Is this burden of proof too high? Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding
fathers of the United States of America, once opined that our system of
justice is based on a theory that 100 guilty men should escape before
one innocent man is wrongfully convicted. Thus, in the spirit of that
theory, it appears very appropriate that a jury be convinced of a man's
guilt beyond a reasonable doubt before it may enter a verdict of guilty
So what exactly is the reasonable doubt in this case? Two words: Self Defense.
To some followers of the Zimmerman case there appears to be no doubt that
Zimmerman readily admitted to shooting a 17 year old boy armed only with
skittles. The state would appear to have all the evidence they need: A
'confession,' a gun and a body. However, the state needs more.
They need to prove that Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin with a depraved
mind and without regard for human life. Herein lies the problem. The defense
is going to vigorously argue that Zimmerman was in fact acting with regard
to human life; his own.
At the conclusion of the trial the jury will be given a Self Defense instruction.
In pertinent part it will explain that George Zimmerman was justified
in using deadly force (shooting Trayvon Martin) if he reasonably believed
that such force was necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily
harm to himself.
It is true that the defendant has the burden to introduce sufficient evidence
of self defense in order for it to be considered a defense to the crime
charged. However, the defendant need only show a scintilla of evidence
of self defense in order for the jury to be given an instruction to consider
it. Additionally, and most importantly, it is NOT the defendant's
burden to 'prove' self defense. The burden will remain with the
state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act
in self defense.
Proving Zimmerman did not act in self defense will be a daunting task for
the state. There is no evidence of how it came to be that Zimmerman and
Martin ultimately ended up in a physical altercation. No witnesses observed
the beginning of the physical altercation. If Zimmerman did in fact believe
that he was going to suffer great bodily harm or death at the hands of
Trayvon then he was justified in using deadly force. The only way for
the state to show that Zimmerman was not justified in using deadly force
would be to prove that Zimmerman provoked the use of force by using or
threatening force against Trayvon.
That said, here are some things to consider:
- Following someone does not constitute provoking
- Words alone do not constitute provoking
- It is not illegal to disregard a 911 operator
- Zimmerman had no duty to retreat
- Even if Zimmerman initially provoked the physical fight, he regains his
right to self defense if: 1) he withdrew from his use of force, 2) clearly
indicated such to Trayvon, and 3) attempted to escape but Trayvon continued
to use force against him which he believed would imminently cause death
or great bodily harm
- Zimmerman did not have to be in 'actual' danger but merely the
danger needed to appear so real that a reasonably cautious and prudent
person under the same circumstances would have believed that the danger
could be avoided only through the use of that force.
With the above in mind, and the fact that there exists some evidence to
corroborate Zimmerman's version of the events (i.e. the injuries to
Zimmerman's head) the state is faced with the unyielding burden to
prove beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt, that George
Zimmerman did not act in self defense. The most crucial consideration
in this case is how the physical fight began. From a review of the evidence,
there currently exists no witnesses to that pivotal moment other than
George Zimmerman himself.
Written by Orlando criminal defense attorney Lyle B. Mazin