by Byron Pitts
A key principle of the American Criminal Justice System is that a verdict of not guilty doesn’t mean that a defendant is innocent. It simply means that the prosecution could not meet their burden of proving their case beyond a reasonable doubt. This principle was never more evident than in the trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman.
Unlike many lay persons, I was not surprised by the verdict. Non lawyer friends of mine expressed the gamut of emotions; sadness, anger, but most of all, they were confused as to how Trayvon’s killer could walk free. In the spirit of helping my friends understand the legal ramifications of the acquittal of Zimmerman, I’ve decided to write this letter.
It is essential to identify the main issue in this case. The main issue was determining exactly what transpired when Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin met face to face. The fact that Zimmerman exited his vehicle with a firearm is probative of his state of mind, but as a matter of law, it provides no direct evidence as to his behavior when he confronted Trayvon.
What exactly happened when Zimmerman and Trayvon met face to face? The answer to this question can only be answered by two people; one of whom can no longer speak for himself. Without the benefit of surveillance video or unbiased witness testimony, Zimmerman was free to craft a statement specifically designed to comport with the letter of the law. Zimmerman’s statement was read into evidence. Juries are instructed to base their verdict only upon the evidence presented in court. The prosecutor had no direct testimony to contradict Zimmerman’s version as to what exactly happened when he met Trayvon. The prosecutor was forced to rely on Trayvon’s friend who could testify as to Trayvon’s state of mind just prior to the altercation, but not about his actions upon meeting Zimmerman. The jury only heard Zimmerman’s side of the story as to what happened when the two came face to face.
Many people believe that Zimmerman was the aggressor in his confrontation with Trayvon. This conclusion is supported by the evidence that the defendant took a weapon and went looking for an unarmed teenager. However, in a court of law, one’s beliefs, unless they come in the form of expert testimony, are not evidence. Remember, a jury is instructed to only consider the evidence. There was no direct evidence (surveillance video or live witness) to support the prosecutor’s theory that Zimmerman was the physical aggressor in his confrontation with Trayvon. Without direct evidence, Zimmerman had a distinct tactical and legal advantage.
When self defense is asserted by a suspect, the defendant does not have to prove to the jury that he was defending himself, instead the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant Was Not defending himself. This is an extremely difficult burden to meet.
When the prosecutor has a case in which they are at a tactical and evidentiary disadvantage and they are facing a crack team of skilled defense lawyers, it’s not surprising that Zimmerman walked. For all those asking why didn’t the prosecution go for a lesser charge, you should know that self defense is a defense to all homicides; First Degree Murder, Second Degree Murder or Manslaughter. To charge Zimmerman with anything less than a homicide offense would have been outrageous. The prosecution took their best shot, but the evidence presented to the jury just didn’t support their theory. As Denzel Washington said in Training Day, “It’s not what you know” (what really happened), “It’s what you can prove” (via evidence).
It’s not the job of a defense attorney to prove your client’s innocence. It’s the duty of defense counsel to force the Government to prove that your client is guilty as charged. There is a huge difference!! Zimmerman is not innocent, but the State could not meet their burden of proving him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
In addition to the calls I received regarding the jury verdict, I received almost as many inquires about the jury’s racial composition. The issue is not how many people of color were on Zimmerman’s jury; the question is how many people of color were in the jury panel from which the jury was selected. The truth of the matter is that, on the whole, young African Americans and Hispanics are not showing up for jury duty. I see it every day. When young minorities do appear for jury duty, one of the following events frequently occurs.
Because of personal exposure to the criminal justice system, either as crime victims or as victims of police harassment, prospective jurors of color acknowledge that they cannot be fair. They are biased against either the prosecution or the defense, and they are removed for cause.
If prospective minority jurors indicate that they can be fair, they are frequently removed by pre-emptory challenge. Attorneys, except in rare circumstances, do not have to justify the removal of a prospective juror by pre-emptory challenge.
The bottom line is that there is a dearth of minority representation on juries around the country. This phenomenon is not unique to the Zimmerman trial. I am not going to assert that an all black jury would have convicted Zimmerman. Black or white, jurors are instructed to follow the law. The law instructs jurors to set aside their biases and prejudging, and reach their decision based solely on the evidence.
Unfortunately, for those of us wanting justice for young Trayvon and his family, the evidence to support a homicide conviction was just not presented to the jury. However, a racially diverse jury would have allowed different perspectives and world views to be heard during deliberations.
Unfortunately, under the law, the goal of obtaining a racially diverse jury is not a basis to keep or exclude minorities. If a non racial basis can be presented to justify, excluding people of color, that prospective juror is frequently excused.
As an African American man, my heart goes out to the Martin family. They have handled themselves with dignity and grace in the midst of unspeakable pain.
As a practicing attorney, however, I am aware of the problematic nature of prosecuting this case. Zimmerman was able to shape his statement in a way most beneficial to his case. Because Trayvon was not here to speak for himself, the prosecution was forced to mount their arguments based upon theories and belief, but very little evidence.
As of this writing, George Zimmerman’s fate lies in the hands of the Department of Justice. Whether or not a federal case is brought against him for violating the civil rights of Trayvon Martin, will be decided by Attorney General Eric Holden. That decision is out of our control.
What remains in our control, however, is the ability to participate in our democracy.
It is your right and duty to vote. It is your right and duty to appear for jury duty. If you do not exercise your right to participate in the system, you cannot complain when the system fails to serve you.
Byron H. Pitts Attorney at Law Byron H. Pitts has been a practicing trial attorney for 15 years. He specializes in criminal and civil litigation. Attorney Pitts has tried and won cases throughout the country. He works for the Law Offices of Attorney Cornelius Pitts.