Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Trayvon Martin Narratives: The Stories the Evidence Tells

The Trayvon Martin story no longer feeds the daily news cycle.  Many people, however, remain interested in the incident. Also, the media still seizes upon any new item of information released regarding Martin's death.

Some conservatives say that the media frenzy has subsided because the flow of evidence from the case credits George Zimmerman's contention that he acted in self-defense when he killed Martin. Other logical reasons could explain the dip in coverage, however. For example, many activists simply wanted the state of Florida to charge Zimmerman. Now that this has occurred, they are on to other business.

Furthermore, many other items -- from the important to the mundane -- have occupied the national media, including the presidential race, LGBT rights, Cory Booker, and the economy. Needless to say, every development in this story will likely capture the media's attention. In any event, the public should learn from this process that the law operates very slowly. If Zimmerman is prosecuted, this might not take place until next year. It is impossible to expect the media to remain fixated on this story at all times.

Important Facts Related to the Prosecution's Evidentiary Submission

Angela Corey, the special prosecutor handling this matter, has released some evidence in the case against Zimmerman, as well as the documents charging him with second-degree murder. Although both sides want certain pieces of evidence shielded from public disclosure, some information that looks favorable to Zimmerman has already been released to the media by unnamed sources.

Regardless of the source of the leaks, people should remember that only a fraction of evidence that Corey submitted has been released for public scrutiny. Furthermore, Corey has not even released all of the evidence that investigators have collected in the case. Specifically, the prosecution has allegedly compiled several inconsistent statements that Zimmerman made to investigators and will file these statements into evidence. Zimmerman's attorney is fighting to keep that evidence shielded from public disclosure.

In addition, even though the prosecution has submitted the information that justifies charging Zimmerman with second-degree murder, it is not clear at all what parts of this information will be admissible at trial. For example, many commentators made noise over the coroner's report that found traces of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in Martin's body.  According to experts, however, the amount was so slight that it could not possibly have impacted his behavior the night he was killed. Indeed, he probably consumed it days earlier. If the experts' description of the drug test is accurate, then the judge probably would not allow the defense to mention the results. This information is nonprobative and irrelevant to the facts in the case. Furthermore, it would potentially excite prejudice and mislead the jury. Standard evidentiary rules in state and federal courts exclude nonprobative and irrelevant evidence from trial.

Ideological Narratives

Predictably, commentators have competing views of the evidence submitted in this case thus far. At best, it is probably safe to say that the prosecutor has overwhelmingly met the probable cause standard required to arrest and prosecute an individual.

The standards at trial are more difficult. Because the Constitution requires prosecutors to prove "guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," it is likely that guilty people can go free. Typically conservatives call rules that guarantee due process to defendants "technicalities" and ask about the "victim's rights." These rules, however, implement the Bill of Rights -- one of the most important additions to the Constitution. Accordingly, it is shocking to see conservative commentators embrace Zimmerman's rights in this case. Undoubtedly, their support of a defendant in a murder case -- especially a Latino defendant -- is situational.

On the other side, liberals who support Martin should remain true to their general support of liberal interpretations of the Constitution. Many media outlets have ominously reported that getting a guilty verdict against Zimmerman will be difficult. This fact should not constitute news. Getting a guilty verdict should present difficulties in any case.

Personal liberty is one of the most cherished rights secured by the Constitution. Although conservative judges and legislators continue to erode civil liberties with restrictive court rulings and legislation, liberty remains a vital part of the nation's legal culture. That the prosecution will have a tough time convicting Zimmerman should not upset anyone who values liberalism.

Perhaps conservatives will join liberals and fight for this principle outside of Zimmerman's prosecution.  Their anger over media and political commentary describing Martin's death and the treatment of Zimmerman as likely instances of racial injustice have lead them hypocritically to embrace defendant's rights. Their behavior is transparent.

Reading the Evidence

Some commentators have argued evidence that suggests Zimmerman sustained injuries the night that he killed Martin substantiates his assertion of self-defense. This argument, however, overlooks many aspects of the case. First, it overlooks the law. The law of self-defense allows a defendant to defeat a murder charge if that person reasonably believed the he or she would suffer lethal force or experience serious bodily injury at the hands of the defendant. The use of force has to be proportional to the threat. And the person must have a reasonable fear -- not just any fear -- that he or she will suffer the harm necessary to warrant lethal force.

Thus, even if Zimmerman acted in his mind to defend himself, a jury would still need to determine whether he acted reasonably. The jury would likely consider the extent of Zimmerman's injuries, whether or not Martin had a weapon, and other factors.

Furthermore, the law requires that initial aggressors retreat from the scene or otherwise indicate a desire to retreat prior to using force. Prosecutors will try to prove that Zimmerman started the aggression -- by leaving his car (after being instructed not to do so), chasing Martin, and frightening (or even hitting) him. If the prosecutors can convince the jury that Zimmerman was the initial aggressor, this would go very far in proving his guilt. Under those circumstances, Martin reasonably acted with force to defend himself from Zimmerman. Zimmerman's injuries are thus consistent with a frightened teenager fighting for his life. Rather than retreating from the scene, Zimmerman killed the frightened kid. 

The facts favor Zimmerman much more if one considers Martin as the initial aggressor. The defense will try to argue that Zimmerman was simply investigating a potential threat to his neighborhood when Martin spontaneously attacked him. Commentators who believe that the evidence substantiates Zimmerman's defense all seem to operate under the assumption that Martin was the initial aggressor. The evidence, however, does not necessarily prove this assumption. Looking at the totality of the facts -- beginning with Zimmerman's first call to police, a reasonable juror could conclude that Zimmerman instigated the fight by following Martin in his car and on foot at night.  Martin's girlfriend will testify that he said he was afraid of Zimmerman. If her testimony is credible, then the facts could support a guilty verdict.

Final Words: Race and the Law

Trials by media are loathsome. They mislead, rather than educate, the public about legal practice. They potentially influence juries. And they are simply a ratings draw for media. Last year, another Florida murder trial generate tons of media coverage. Casey Anthony was tried for murdering her daughter. According to media reports, it seemed that her guilt was a sure thing. From a legal perspective, however, the evidence was very weak. The prosecution did not even know how the child died, and the defendant denied killing her. The case against Zimmerman differs substantially. The prosecution knows how Martin died. Zimmerman has admitted that he shot Martin. The prosecution knows how Martin and Zimmerman's paths collided that fateful night. Now, both sides will construct narratives to weave the evidence together for jurors.

From a civil rights perspective, the tragedies in this case are Martin's death and the initial failure of the police to arrest Zimmerman. To the extent that race was involved in this case, the police inaction is probably the most likely place. Also, race could have impacted Zimmerman's decision to pursue Martin (the "fucking punk") and to kill him.

The prosecution has not alleged that race is a factor in the case; so the issue will not arise explicitly at trial. But race will absolutely play a central role in this case -- both in the media (already has) and in the courtroom. Zimmerman's lawyer will pursue any legal means to exclude black jurors; the prosecution will try to maximize the number of black jurors. The prosecution will probably want a good number of women on the jury as well. Women could probably relate to the prosecution's narrative that Martin felt horrified by Zimmerman, who had followed him in his car and then left the car to chase him down. Woman could also have a particular connection to Martin's mother, who will probably offer emotional testimony at the trial.

Zimmerman's lawyer will want several white men on the jury. This is not a "race card." Polls show that Zimmerman has the largest support among whites -- particularly among white Republicans and men (which at this point in history are redundant categories). While many people have tried to dismiss the factor of race inside and outside of this case, it remains relevant in society. On the other hand, the prevalence of racism does not mean that a conviction must turn on Zimmerman having acted out of racial animosity. Murder is murder - whether it is racially based or otherwise. The state is prosecuting Zimmerman for a homicide, not for a hate crime. Now that Zimmerman has been charged, let the state prove is case.


Keith Long said...

Excellent commentary on the Zimmerman case. I have heard a forensic pathologist state that the blood sample which found traces of the marijuana compound from Trayvon Martin's autopsy was not reliable. He stated the blood sample was taken from the chest cavity rather than venous sources, and that sample obscures chemical analysis for this compound.

That being the case, the marijuana issue becomes mute?

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Keith - if the amount was low -- and even questionable due to science - then it definitely stays out.

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