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Untangling The Legal Issues In The Zimmerman Case


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

It has been 17 months since the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in the Florida town of Sanford. Late last night, the former neighborhood watch volunteer charged in his death was acquitted on charges of manslaughter and second-degree murder. The Zimmerman trial began as a routine homicide, but quickly evolved into something with much larger consequences about racial profiling and can control. It also became a story that could have long-lasting legal consequences.

We called up Kenneth Nunn. He's a professor of law at the University of Florida and the assistant director of the Criminal Justice Center there. And we started by discussing the cautionary note that Judge Debra Steinberg Nelson gave the jury. She told them, quote, "Zimmerman cannot be guilty of manslaughter by committing a merely negligent act, or if the killing was either the justifiable or excusable homicide."

I asked Professor Nunn whether it now appeared her guidance had sunk in.

KENNETH NUNN: Well, it did. But that jury instruction has to be taken in context. And while it does say that he can't be guilty of a negligent act, he can be guilty of what we call in the legal field culpable negligence. So that means ordinary negligence is not sufficient to establish a manslaughter charge, but sort of an extreme degree of negligence is. And I think that there was sufficient evidence to show that there was extreme negligence, at least on the part of George Zimmerman in this case.

I think what happened, however, is that the prosecutors did not do a very good job of walking the jurors through the elements of the various crimes, and what they would need to prove in order to come back with a conviction.

MARTIN: The defense obviously focused on framing Mr. Zimmerman as someone who was acting in self-defense; continued throughout the trial to point to Zimmerman's injuries, photos of blood dripping from the back of his head - very graphic photos - calling the concrete pavement a weapon. Was this a predictable strategy?

NUNN: Well, it was. And I think in a lot of way the prosecution was outgunned because they didn't recognize that. This case was flipped in some ways. Because really what happened is the prosecution became the defense and the defense became the prosecution. And the defense lawyers did a very good job of prosecuting Trayvon Martin. And so, as a consequence, he was profiled in life and he was profiled death, at least in his trial, as a violent and dangerous black male.

And that quite often happens in these cases that have to do with police brutality or so-called justifiable homicide, when a suspect has been killed by the police. But prosecutors aren't ordinarily the people who prosecute those kinds of cases, at least on the civil end. And they probably weren't as sophisticated in understanding the types of imagery and the motifs that come into play in those cases, and knowing how to confront them.

MARTIN: What about in closing arguments, I understand one of Zimmerman's lawyers essentially try to reframe the jury's options.

NUNN: Yeah, I think that there was a comment by the defense attorney, Mark O'Mara, where he said: I wish that the verdict form contained completely innocent on it, instead of just not guilty. So what he was trying to do was argue to the jury that even if the claim was merely that George Zimmerman was innocent, as opposed to not guilty, there wouldn't be any proof of that. And it was so stark in terms of the lack of proof that they could even show minimum standard of burden of proof, on the part of the prosecution.

So, you know, I mean they did a good job I think throughout in terms of flipping the case and sort of putting the prosecution on the defensive. And that was the kind of thing that you would have expected the prosecution to respond to. But they did not.

MARTIN: From the start, one of the more controversial elements of this case was Florida's Stand Your Ground self-defense law.

NUNN: Correct.

MARTIN: Can you talk about its role in this trial, what it meant for this trial?

NUNN: Well, you know, one thing that was I think meaningful in the case is that the jurors were instructed that the defendant in the case did not have to retreat if he was in a place where he had a lawful right to be before using deadly force. And that is in fact true. But there is a statute in the Florida statutes that I was quite surprised was not part of the instructions, which says that if you are the initial aggressor, you do have to retreat and you have to take all efforts to withdraw before you can use deadly force.

And for some odd reason that was not explained to the jury. Because I think if Stand Your Ground had any role to play in the case, then it would not be appropriate for that to be considered by the jury, unless they considered whether, A, George Zimmerman was the initial aggressor. And B, Whether he had an opportunity to leave. So, that's how I would look at the role of the Stand Your Ground law in the case.

MARTIN: So then you would not see any national consequences from this verdict about other Stand Your Ground Laws across the country.

NUNN: Oh, I think there would be national consequences to the verdict because the fact of the matter is the reason why we have the trial is because there were, I don't know, about a month of protests in Florida, throughout the country, that was urging for this prosecution to go forward. And the reason why we were in that posture in the first place was because the Stand Your Ground law was implemented to prevent this case from being properly charged and investigated.

So I think that that's a legitimate concern that hopefully will not take place in other instances like this.

MARTIN: Kenneth Nunn is a professor of law at the University of Florida. Thank you so much for talking with us.

NUNN: My pleasure, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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