When attorney Craig Lawson got up Sunday morning he had one of the most difficult tasks of his legal career.
He had to explain to his 14-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son how a Seminole County jury could have decided that George Zimmerman was not guilty of the February 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was walking from a convenience store, armed only with a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea.
As a lawyer, Lawson said he could explain how difficult it is to win a conviction when, as in this case, there were no eyewitnesses, and when the person on trial, as Zimmerman did, claims he acted in self defense.
He could explain how reasonable doubt is a high standard - one that protects innocent people from being unjustly convicted. He could explain that even though there are rules that require that juries represent a cross-section of the community, it just happened the one in Sanford that acquitted Zimmerman was composed exclusively of women, only one of whom - described as Hispanic or black - wasn’t white.
But, as a black man, looking at the confused and frightened faces of his children, he said he was hard-pressed to argue that the jury verdict was fair.
“The system doesn’t look at us fairly. There’s nothing new about this,” he said. His advice to young African-Americans: “You have to be careful out there. You have to be vigilant.”
Attorneys Chris Haddad and John Howe said they would give all young people the same advice, particularly in light of a 2005 NRA-backed state law that gives gun-owners broad power to use deadly force if they believe they are in danger.
“The worst message that comes out of (the acquittal) is if you have a gun not only should you shoot the person, but you should kill them,” said Howe, the first black president of the Palm Beach County Bar Association. “You have every incentive to shoot them and kill them because then that person isn’t there to refute your version of events.”
Haddad agreed. “The law has evolved so people with guns have a far greater right to use them,” he said. “As long as this law remains on the books, these types of things are going to continue to happen.”
Zimmerman didn’t ask Seminole County Circuit Judge Debra Nelson to clear him on the basis of the state’s now infamous “Stand Your Ground” law. In the wake of the national uproar that surrounded Martin’s murder, Gov. Rick Scott appointed a panel of lawyers, law enforcement officials and Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Krista Marx to review it. They essentially affirmed the law, but suggested that members of neighborhood watch groups, like Zimmerman, shouldn’t be allowed to “pursue, confront or provoke potential suspects.”
While Zimmerman didn’t specifically invoke the law in his defense, it was part of the jury instructions. The six jurors were told they could acquit Zimmerman if they believed he was justified in using deadly force.
“If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself.”
Before the law was passed, such rights only extended to a person’s home under the legal theory that a person’s home is his castle, Haddad said. Even then, people had a duty to retreat, even if it meant only closing the door to keep an intruder from getting inside the house.
Under the “Stand Your Ground” law, Zimmerman could invoke it anywhere he had a legal right to be. Further, he could argue that he believed he faced the possibility of “death or great bodily harm” even if others might question the danger he faced.
“You have to put yourself in the role of the person of what they perceived even if it might not have been accurate,” attorney Michael Salnick said.
Again, the jury was instructed: “The danger facing George Zimmerman need not have been actual … Based upon appearances, George Zimmerman must have actually believed that the danger was real,” according to the instruction that guided the jury’s deliberations.
While many have argued that Zimmerman set the wheels in motion by getting out of his truck and apparently chasing Martin, even after a police dispatcher told him to stay put, Salnick and other attorneys said there is nothing inherently sinister about a neighborhood watch volunteer approaching someone.
“Looking at it as a human being, I wished he had never gotten out of his car,” Haddad said. “But from a legal standpoint, there was nothing illegal about it. Morally, ethically? Yes, you could certainly question it. But legally? No.”
The mixing of moral and legal issues is one of the most prevailing - and disconcerting - aspects of the trial, said Bruce Reinhart, a former federal prosecutor.
He said white people are regularly prosecuted for shooting black people. The problem is no one other than Zimmerman knows what happened and he insisted he acted in self defense.
“I don’t think you can say the justice system failed,” he said. “The jury did its job.”
Questions about racism and gun ownership are societal problems that the legal system isn’t designed to answer. “The legal part is over. Let’s focus on the bigger problems. Let’s have a productive dialogue on the bigger issues, such as how do we raise our kids so they have more sensitivity.”
Further, he said, while the legal system didn’t punish Zimmerman, he is unlikely to return to the life he had before he killed Martin. Just as Casey Anthony was shunned after being acquitted of killing her daughter, Zimmerman will probably suffer the same fate.
“George Zimmerman may not be legally guilty but if society thinks he did wrong, it will treat him accordingly,” Reinhart said.
It’s not clear whether the legal system is through with him. The federal government could pursue him for criminal civil rights violations, although most legal observers said they doubted such action would be taken.
More likely, Martin’s parents could pursue a civil lawsuit against him. West Palm Beach civil attorneys, including Jack Scarola and Ted Babbitt, said civil cases require only that a jury find that Zimmerman caused Martin’s death by “a preponderance of the evidence” - often described as 51 percent. If a jury believed that Martin was somewhat responsible, they could apportion some blame to him while still holding Zimmerman mostly responsible.
The problem, both said, is that it doesn’t appear Zimmerman has any money. As is the American way, both acknowledged, he could get a lucrative book deal in the future.
“I can’t see anybody seriously taking the case except for the publicity,” Babbitt said, “which would, of course, be enormous.”