Saturday night, a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty in the killing of Trayvon Martin. In tragic circumstances such as this, it’s easy to get carried away by emotions — especially when the case is highly publicized. That said, lawyers often view these cases differently because we understand the legal analysis. Or at least, we really try to.
The ability to watch trials on television allows us an inside look at the strategies employed by the prosecution and the defense. Here’s a look at some of the flaws so many are talking about in the execution of the prosecution’s case.
Was There a Thorough Investigation?
George Zimmerman was not charged until six weeks after the killing of Trayvon Martin. The New York Times notes that because Zimmerman said he acted in self-defense, and the police believed there was probable cause that he acted in self-defense, they were not allowed under the law to make an arrest.
The delay, and assumption by the police that Zimmerman acted in self defense, brings up a few questions: Were the police through in their screening of Zimmerman? Did they extensively interview witnesses? How well was the crime scene preserved and examined? Did the police do the same job as they could have, given a six week delay?
Whether to Charge Zimmerman?
The decision to charge George Zimmerman with second-degree murder came six weeks after Trayvon Martin’s death, and only after Angela B. Corey was appointed as prosecutor by Florida Governor Rick Scott. Much of the delay is attributed to the local prosecutor’s hesitation to charging Zimmerman because the self-defense claim would be hard to overcome.
Corey also reportedly neglected to include information in the probable cause affidavit that would have been favorable to the defense, namely that there was physical evidence of injuries that George Zimmerman sustained, to the front and back of his head. In a Huffington Post opinion piece, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz opined that it was misleading to omit information regarding the physical injuries when court needs to determine “whether a homicide occurred, and if so, a homicide of what degree.”
There may have been public pressure to charge Zimmerman but you have to ask — what will the public’s response be when they don’t get the outcome they want? Is that just making the situation worse?
Second-Degree Murder v. Manslaughter?
One of the red-flags many lawyers are citing in the case since the verdict was that the prosecution charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder instead of manslaughter. Though the jury was later instructed to consider the lesser included offense of manslaughter, it was a big leap for the prosecution to initially rely on second-degree murder because of the more difficult elements to prove. As you will remember, with second-degree murder the prosecution would have to prove that Zimmerman acted with depraved indifference to human life, as opposed to recklessness, which would have been required for manslaughter.
Were Witnesses Adequately Prepared?
Since self-defense is a complete defense, the prosecution’s main path to success would have been to poke holes through the theory that Zimmerman acted in self-defense. And because there were no first-hand witnesses, they had to build their case with circumstantial evidence. In this scenario, trial preparation is key. Many of the prosecutions key witnesses seemed unprepared, and even bolstered Zimmerman’s account. No doubt litigators will take this as yet another reminder: You can never do enough to prepare your witnesses for the stress of testifying at trial.
Watching highly publicized cases enhances debate around central issues and provides educational scenarios where lawyers can test out their legal strategies. What would you have done differently in this case? Let us know on Twitter @FindLawLP.
- Jodi Arias Verdict: How Would You Have Handled the Case? (FindLaw’s Strategist Blog)
- Lessons From Zimmerman’s Trial For the Rest of Us (FindLaw’s Strategist Blog)
- Florida Criminal Jury Instruction for Manslaughter (FindLaw)