Menu

We never should have witnessed a Zimmerman trial

  • omara661.jpg

    June 27, 2013: George Zimmerman, right, speaks with defense attorney Mark O'Mara during his trial in Seminole circuit court in Sanford, Fla. (AP/Orlando Sentinel, Jacob Langston, Pool)

  • ZIMM TRIAL BT 2.jpg

    George Zimmerman listens to his defense counsel Mark O'Mara, left, and Don West, center during his trial in Sanford, Fla. July 10, 2013.

  • APTOPIX Neighbrhood W_Garc.jpg

    John Donnelly, a friend of George Zimmerman, cries on the witness stand after listening to screams on the 911 tape entered in evidence during Zimmerman's trial in Seminole Circuit Court, in Sanford, Fla., Monday, July 8, 2013. Donnelly identified the screams as belonging to Zimmerman. Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teen, in 2012. (AP Photo/Orlando Sentinel, Joe Burbank, Pool)AP2013

The George Zimmerman case should never have been brought. Saturday night after the “not guilty” verdict was delivered, State Attorney Angela Corey justified bringing the case “to put the facts out there.” But criminal cases should never be brought simply to put the facts before the public. 

No one should be charged with a crime unless prosecutors themselves really believe that the person committed a crime.

Yet, the prosecution and their own experts’ language consistently showed a lack of certainty. Prosecutors aren’t supposed to bring cases where the best they can say is that something might “possibly” have happened or that there was a “chance” that it did. 

Whether it's George Zimmerman or John Doe, no one should be charged with a crime unless prosecutors really believe that the person committed a crime.

Usually defense attorneys are the ones trying to get prosecution witnesses to concede that alternative explanations might be possible. In the Zimmerman trial, even the prosecution couldn’t get definite statements out of their own witnesses.

By the end of the trial, with the prosecution conceding that Travyon Martin was likely on top of Zimmerman, prosecutors were forced to speculate that possibly Martin was about to get off of Zimmerman when he was shot. That, by itself, completely undermined the prosecution's claim that Martin was the one calling for help.

The case was so weak that the local Sanford District Attorney refused to bring charges against Zimmerman. That is why, on the orders of the governor, an outside District Attorney, Angela Corey, had to be brought in to handle it. 

Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee was fired because he also refused to charge Zimmerman with a crime. 

Even the lead detective on the case, Christopher Serino, told the jury he believed Zimmerman's version of the events.

Many people jumped to conclusions without knowing the facts. Even before they could read the police reports, many conservative commentators claimed early on that Zimmerman had acted improperly (Mona Charen, Rich Lowry, Heather Mac Donald, Robert VerBruggen, and Gregory Kane).

Comments by President Obama, Al Sharpton, and others surely stirred up the racial aspects of the case and appear to have led some blacks across the country to attack whites to avenge Trayvon Martin (e.g., Gainesville, Florida; Oak Park, Illinois; Mobile, Alabama; Toledo, Ohio; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Norfolk, Virginia).

The media also bears a real responsibility for sensationalism. After all, most people can’t spend their days reading police reports or listening to trials. But in Zimmerman’s case, "NBC Nightly News" and the "Today Show" went so far as doctoring tapes of Zimmerman’s 911 call to make it look as if he was fixated on Trayvon Martin’s race. 

Even late in the trial, media coverage still showed pictures of a much younger 12-year-old Martin continually reinforcing the image in many minds that Zimmerman had shot a young child, not a six-foot, 17-year-old football player.

Many readers might be surprised to learn that 17-year-olds are almost 50 percent more likely to commit murders than 28-year-olds such as Zimmerman.

Other parts of the prosecution's case could only be described as an attempt to distract jurors. For example, much was made of the class Zimmerman took at Seminole State College that taught by Professor Alexis Carter. 

The key was, supposedly, that Zimmerman really understood Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Prosecutor Richard Mantei told the court that Zimmerman's legal studies would help jurors understand his "state of mind" and "ambitions and frustrations" before the shooting.

One could debate about whether Zimmerman remembered the part of that lecture from the class. Nevertheless, it was really completely besides the point for the same reason that the defense never referenced the law: with Zimmerman on his back and Trayvon Martin holding him down, he had no option to retreat. 

None of the testimony ever explained why the “Stand Your Ground” law was even relevant to Zimmerman’s actions.

The prosecutors’ biggest problem was that they had to do more than convince jurors that their version of events was “likely,” and they never come close to doing that. 

Instead, they had to show that their claims about Zimmerman were true beyond a “reasonable doubt.” To put it differently, to say something is “likely” just means that there is over a 50 percent chance it is true. To say something is beyond a reasonable doubt means that it is much closer to 100 percent.

This case should never have been brought by prosecutors, but they let politics influence their decision.

John R. Lott, Jr. is a columnist for FoxNews.com. He is an economist and was formerly chief economist at the United States Sentencing Commission. Lott is also a leading expert on guns and op-eds on that issue are done in conjunction with the Crime Prevention Research Center. He is the author of eight books including "More Guns, Less Crime." His latest book is "Dumbing Down the Courts: How Politics Keeps the Smartest Judges Off the Bench" Bascom Hill Publishing Group (September 17, 2013). Follow him on Twitter@johnrlottjr.