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Blogs from June, 2013


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.

Benjamin Franklin

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 against him.

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

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