• Lessons from the Zimmerman Trial

    by  • July 16, 2013 • Faculty Commentary, Featured Posts • 6 Comments

    Godfrey_Douglas thumbBy Douglas Godfrey

    Why did the media give the George Zimmerman trial such extensive coverage? The trial brings into focus several important issues about how we police ourselves, how people live behind gates, and what harms can result from the intersection of these realities.

    First, the reality of the gated community played a major role in the trial. Approximately one out of nine people in Florida lives in a gated community. Such communities view themselves as refuges, enclaves separated off from the rest of us. Thus, it appears that Zimmerman approached Trayvon Martin and provoked a confrontation because he did not think Trayvon belonged in his special community. (Actually, Trayvon did—he was staying with his father.) As we wall ourselves off from our neighbors, we become much more suspicious of the “other”—be it  a member of another race, a member of another generation, or someone, in Zimmerman’s eyes, who just “didn’t belong” in his private space in the world.

    Second, the trial shows the scary nature of privatizing our policing. Amateurs doing the patrolling—neighborhood watch members like Zimmerman—have no real training about how to patrol effectively. In America, we have about 911,000 sworn peace officers who comprise an authentic police force. They have the power of arrest, side arms and the authority to use them, qualified immunity from suit, and, most importantly, extensive training and rigorous background checks. I am not sure Zimmerman could have passed a background check. He certainly did not have the standard 14 weeks of training at a police academy; nor did he have the subsequent six months to a year probationary period when he would have been supervised by a training officer and would have reported to a training sergeant or lieutenant. Also, real police officers must undergo continual training in firearms proficiency, effective communications, and other important skills. Zimmerman, it seems, had none of this.

    Interview a training officer at a police academy and he will tell you that the first thing he teaches young, aggressive officers is not to provoke a confrontation. Police are taught to control situations in a manner that does not escalate the tension, something Zimmerman was not trained to do. (This accounts for the police dispatcher telling Zimmerman to back off and wait for the patrol officers.) If a subject becomes aggressive, well-trained police officers back off and call for back-up. Because they have greater numbers, the police can control a situation without getting anyone hurt. Also, unlike Zimmerman, police officers have uniforms and badges, and people will comply with their requests because of these demonstrations of authority. This disparity in training, resources, and effectiveness shows how dangerous it is to have amateurs patrolling neighbors. Nevertheless, there are now more private security officers than sworn peace officers in America. In Illinois, a private security officer only needs 40 hours of training at a community college in order to get a license and carry a gun—and Zimmerman was not even a private security officer.

    Third, while there are some factual disputes in the trial, this case highlights and tests Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, for which the NRA lobbied for years. An aspect of the law caused the original prosecutor to refrain from charging Zimmerman because he didn’t think he could demonstrate by probable cause that Zimmerman was not justified in shooting Trayvon. So, by the terms of the law, Zimmerman should not even have been charged. (The special prosecutor thought otherwise.)

    Also, because Zimmerman was not originally charged, the lawyer for Trayvon’s family led a groundswell to put pressure on the prosecutor’s officer. This is not too much of a problem, because state and local prosecutors in this country are almost always elected (federal ones serve by Senate-confirmed Presidential appointment) and have to be responsive to the public. Given the great power prosecutors have, it is appropriate that they have to be accountable; there certainly can be abuses due to prosecutors pandering—think of the botched Duke lacrosse players scandal.

    Fourth, regarding the media feeding-frenzy, one factor is that cameras are allowed in Florida courtrooms. If this had happened in a jurisdiction that does not allow cameras, such as any federal court, there would be much less interest. Without pictures, the vast majority of media would not care. Also, there is a whole subset of cable shows—Nancy Grace’s being one of note—that have to have this content in order to exist. Grace had just wrapped up coverage of the Jodi Arrias trial and needed content. Like a shark, she has to keep moving or she will fade into irrelevancy.

    One final note—why was Zimmerman acquitted? There is a great advantage and convenience to a “blame the dead man” defense. Zimmerman is the only one who can tell a coherent narrative and the Stand Your Ground law favored him by putting an additional burden on the prosecutor. The fundamental rule in trial advocacy is this: whoever tells the better story wins.


    The purpose of the C-K Faculty Blog is to provide a forum that brings together all the rich intellectual contributions of the Chicago-Kent faculty and to encourage respectful and scholarly dialogue within the extended Chicago-Kent community, including faculty, students, alumni and colleagues at other law schools and universities. For questions or more information, contact the C-K Faculty Blog Editor by e-mail at facultyscholarship@kentlaw.iit.edu.

    6 Responses to Lessons from the Zimmerman Trial

    1. July 16, 2013 at 2:47 pm

      1) Gated communities were created in response to high crime rates, and the desire to protect a given community’s inhabitants from the legitimate fear of random violence.

      2) I agree, Zimmerman would have made an incompetent cop. However, not an abusive one. You completely discount Trayvon’s role in this tragedy. And a tragedy it was. But a little cooperation, and a non-violent response might have led to a different outcome.

      3) You confirm that this case “tested” the Stand Your Ground” law but you do not reference whether the law is a good one or a bad one. I happen to think it is justified.

      4) Your conclusion is ridiculous. The prosecutors’s representation of the State was sanctionable and reprehensible. The case should never have been brought, but the prosecution, in trying to withhold evidence to the defense, tried to weave a story that was apart from reality. Why do you absolve the Prosecutors as you do? The defense acted honorably throughout, and the evidence showed, as you admit, that the law favored Zimmerman.

      I guess I just want it to be known that there are Kent Grads who do not automatically side with the Prosecutors on this case.

    2. Ken Chestek
      July 16, 2013 at 5:00 pm

      >>whoever tells the better story wins.<<

      I completely agree. The problem with this case, of course, is that only two people knew the true story… and one of them ended up dead. So the only story the jury heard was Zimmerman's. The prosecution had to try to tell Trayvon's story through circumstantial evidence and speculation, which is why it could not be told as effectively as Zimmerman's.

      Bottom line here: Stand Your Ground needs to be repealed. But I'm not holding my breath.

    3. John Brody
      August 6, 2013 at 6:24 pm

      “Why did the media give the George Zimmerman trial such extensive coverage?”

      Methinks you neglected to mention the most obvious reason.

    4. Barry Goldstein Zavah
      August 7, 2013 at 10:40 pm

      I’m a retired career prosecutor who didn’t stay glued to the media nor look deeply into the particular laws raised by various parties. So having said that, let’s weigh-in:

      First, it may have taken a long road to get to the result, but we’re told there was an early decision — was it a police officer or Assistant State’s Attorney — who made a decision not to arrest Zimmerman. Well … that shouldn’t have been the end of it until a groundswell of family and public pressure caused the authorities to do what should have been done from the get-go and that is: Death + Weapon x Conflicting suspect/witness statements = A Grand Jury Investigation.

      Two: It is common to over-charge at the Grand Jury stage. The standard of proof at that stage is lower than the at trial “beyond a reasonable doubt” and a murder count was appropriate. I do not recall if Florida allows a prospective defendant to testify or not, but that it did go to a Grand Jury was the right thing to do. Given so few defendants do so, there is a category of the “he said-he said” case where testifying often leads to a “no bill” ending it right then and there without the added expense of hearings, motions, trial, etc. This may have been such a situation, but only the defense counsel was in a position to make that call. Of course, there’s disadvantages of giving the prosecutor a heck of a go at the fellow and an opportunity to verify everying and be double/triple prepared for trial.

      Three: Projecting ahead, there would likely be a charge-down to manslaughter at trial and/or have it charged to a jury and in that sense, if the jury returned that lessor included verdict, that would have been as fair a result as a not guilty.

      Four: It seems at the beginning and end of the day, “Stand Your Ground” didn’t have anything to do with the case, but in projecting ahead that it would, based upon Zimmerman’s initial statement to the police. His counsel elected not to go that route. It wasn’t until after the verdict when there was a cable TV discussion where it was revealed that Florida law is such that if you commenced an encounter and things turn on you … you cannot claim a traditional self-defense/justification defense — akin, I suppose, like Equity’s “clean doctrine”. [Leaned that quite well from Dean Herzog required back in the day,in ’69-72′ . Interesting to note that the NYS Bar exam had a question about a ‘non-compete clause’ in a professional employment contract in a small rural multi-county area and ‘nailed it’ due to 4 hrs of Equity. Once again, thank you IIT-CKCofL. ] Many states hold that if things turn and now your’re getting the worst of it, circumstances may permit you claiming ‘self-defense’. I tend to like the ‘clean hands’ view — though NYS didn’t have that when I was in the saddle.

      Five: Jurors have a difficult job, hearing a charge of complicated concepts and our profession has volumes over all sorts of topics of law. They invariably do the best they can under the circumstances and should not be faulted regardless of which of several verdicts possible in the Zimmerman case. Evidence suggested a manslaugher was appropriate, but I didn’t hear the entire case nor the charge on the law as a layperson … so lay off the jurors civilians and commentators, ok?

      Six: The important element is the matter of race in Amercia. It still needs talking and working at it.

      Seven: I saw little of Sean Hannity’s early ‘puff-ball’ interview of Zimmerman — and Sean — “shame on you”.

    5. Barry Goldstein Zavah
      August 7, 2013 at 10:43 pm

      I am filling in a critical point about the jury charge and Florida’s law akin to “clean hands in Equity”. It seems that for what ever reason, the trial judge in Zimmerman didn’t charge that, somehow feeling — that what, as a matter of law Zimmerman wasn’t the initial agressor? That gun and little enough training sure emboldened Zimmerman … so what reason did he have for approaching Martin? Ans: “Little to none” and perhaps Martin felt he should confront someone confronting him.”

    6. September 18, 2013 at 3:39 am

      I agree on many points you make in your article but do not agree on a few. Communities that have had a problem with crime have a right to protect themselves and their property. The best way to do this is the questions. As a neighborhood watch volunteer maybe Mr. Zimmerman does have this right or maybe he does not, it all depends on your perspective. You have to ask yourself if you or your immediate neighbor had items stolen the week before from your home what would you do? The answer is different for all of us. Some people would never confront someone and others take great pleasure in confronting someone, it all depends on your personality and life experience. Neighborhood watch programs are promoted by police departments because they do not have the manpower to police every neighborhood at all times. I agree it would have been much better if Mr. Zimmerman just followed at a distance and called the police to come and investigate his perceived suspicious activity in his neighborhood but based on the evidence there was aggression on the part of both parties and we will never know the whole truth of what happened that day.

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