The jury in the George Zimmerman trial had little choice but to acquit: There simply were too many questions about what took place in the moments before 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in Florida 17 months ago, and no witnesses or conclusive evidence to disprove his version of what happened.
Still, it is hardly surprising that the verdict has outraged millions across the country because even if it wasn’t an act of murder, or even manslaughter, the shooting never should have happened.
And it wouldn’t have if (1) Zimmerman had only listened to police when they told him to stay in his car and not pursue the 17-year-old who he decided didn’t belong in his neighborhood; or (2) he wasn’t carrying a gun.
Zimmerman may, or may not, have been physically attacked by the teenager he’d been following around the neighborhood. Enough evidence suggests he was, at least to some extent, roughed up by Martin — thus buttressing his claim that he fired in self-defense. Evidence also indicates that Martin knew Zimmerman was following him around; thus it could be argued he had cause to confront him. But thanks to Florida’s misguided “Stand Your Ground” law, Zimmerman was entitled to defend himself — even with a gun — if he felt threatened.
Unfortunately, the truth about what took place will never be known, and with so many questions, a murder conviction would have been wrong. Even for the more reasonable option, manslaughter, there was reasonable doubt. But given that Zimmerman bore most of the responsibility for what took place that night, and that Martin is dead, it hardly seems right that Zimmerman was simply allowed to walk. Perhaps some lesser charge would have been more appropriate.
The wrongful death civil suit reportedly under consideration by Martin’s family would punish Zimmerman financially, but all the money in the world won’t bring Trayvon back. A civil rights prosecution, on the other hand, might be as hard to prove as murder. Zimmerman’s suspicions well have been stoked by Martin’s race, but there was no indication of that in his discussion with the police dispatcher until she asked him; he made no disparaging comments regarding Martin’s race; and his only caustic utterance was his use of the word “punk.”
It was a bad situation that escalated, then became tragic, because Zimmerman decided to take the law into his own hands rather than defer to police; because he was carrying a gun; and because — whether he knew about “Stand Your Ground” or not — he felt entitled to use it.
For all the good they do, neighborhood watch volunteers everywhere should be barred from carrying weapons, and police need to work with them so they know that their job is to watch, not to do cops’ jobs for them.