Skip to main content

Why Trayvon Martin case charges are a victory for legal system

By Gabriel J. Chin, Special to CNN
updated 5:46 AM EDT, Thu April 12, 2012
George Zimmerman's arrest shows the
George Zimmerman's arrest shows the "stand your ground" law doesn't exempt people from prosecution, says Gabriel Chin.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gabriel Chin: Charges show that "stand your ground" doesn't mean "get out of jail free"
  • He says George Zimmerman is entitled to present his self-defense argument to the jury
  • Chin: Proving second-degree murder charge is a high bar, but jury could convict on lesser charge
  • He says one lesson is that private citizens should not direct action in case like this

Editor's note: Gabriel J. Chin is a professor at the University of California, Davis, School of Law. He teaches criminal law, criminal procedure, immigration, and race and law.

(CNN) -- Many people consider Trayvon Martin to be a 21st century Emmett Till. George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin as the 17-year-old African-American returned home after buying Skittles and iced tea. The killing has generated sadness, anger and frustration both because the innocent and inoffensive victim may have been targeted only because of his race, and because the admitted shooter was not arrested.

After weeks of suspense, Florida special prosecutor Angela Corey has ordered Zimmerman arrested and charged him with second-degree murder.

This development shows several positive things about the criminal justice system. First, it makes clear that even under Florida's liberal self-defense laws, an implausible or unsubstantiated claim of self-defense does not constitute a "get out of jail free" card. Florida's "stand your ground" law protects, some say over-protects, the right of self-defense. But judges and juries still have the power to evaluate the truth of self-defense claims, and defendants will be convicted of homicide if the prosecution can prove that killings were outside the law.

Martin parents 'overtaken by the news'
George Zimmerman arrest timeline
Zimmerman arrested, family atty speaks
Zimmerman charged with 2nd degree murder

In addition, at a press conference announcing the charge, Corey emphasized that the charges were based on careful investigation and evaluation of the facts, not on "pressure or petition." It is wonderful that the rallies, marches and protests brought attention to a case that otherwise might have gone unnoticed. But it would be disastrous for society if popular pressure alone could induce prosecutors to charge people with crimes.

Some aspects of how the case will proceed are clear. First, while the prosecution was unconvinced by Zimmerman's self-defense claim, he is still entitled to present it to the jury at trial. If they accept it, of course, he will be acquitted. In addition, although Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder, even if the jury rejects the self-defense claim and believes the killing was homicide, they may choose to convict of a "lesser included offense" such as manslaughter. Manslaughter is still a serious felony, although it carries a lower penalty than murder.

It is also important to note the stringency of the requirements for a second-degree murder charge. The prosecution must prove that a defendant had "a depraved mind" and acted "without regard for human life." The killing must be motivated by "ill will, hatred, spite, or an evil intent."

The defense is likely to argue that even if Zimmerman made a misjudgment or mistake, as a neighborhood watch volunteer, he had none of these bad motives. He could claim that no one bent on murder would, as he did, call the police in advance. The lesser charge of manslaughter requires a killing through "act, procurement or culpable negligence" which can be established with less evidence of bad motive.

There is another possibility. Under a particular set of facts it could be that both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman reasonably believed they were being confronted by unlawful violence from the other, and therefore that both thought they had to use force to defend themselves. If the jury found that to be the case, under Florida law, Zimmerman would be acquitted.

It is impossible to say which of these scenarios is most likely. The prosecutor would not and could not have filed charges if she believed that Martin simply attacked Zimmerman, who fired because he reasonably feared for his own life. Beyond that, however, the prosecutor deliberately (and properly, under applicable ethical rules) declined to reveal what facts the investigation uncovered, or why she regarded them as showing that what happened was criminal. One possibility, admittedly speculative, is that the prosecutor concluded that Zimmerman illegally confronted the victim with a weapon without just cause, and that that criminal act led to the shooting.

Because the critical facts of the case have not been revealed, it is impossible to predict how the case will fare when tested in the crucible of the courtroom.

The evidence could be air-tight, but in cases from the Michael Jackson child molestation prosecution to the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape prosecution, evidence that convinced prosecutors disintegrated in the face of vigorous defense advocacy. And Zimmerman will almost certainly get a high quality defense, paid for either by himself and his supporters or by the state of Florida, which will want to ensure the appearance of fairness on a case in the spotlight.

Whatever else comes out of this incident, it is clear that it is risky for people to inject themselves into ambiguous situations they are neither properly trained nor legally authorized to handle. Even police departments often train off-duty officers to call 911 rather than taking direct action, unless human life is at risk. If there was ever any doubt, this case demonstrates that that is the right approach for private citizens.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gabriel J. Chin.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 4:41 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT