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George Zimmerman acquitted by jury over the killing of Trayvon Martin

Controversial case closes controversially.

New Statesman
George Zimmerman stands as the jury arrives to deliver his verdict. Photograph: Getty Images

George Zimmerman has been acquitted of the murder of 17-year-old Florida student Trayvon Martin.

Martin was walking back to his father's fiancée's house in a gated community outside Sanford, FL, carrying skittles and iced tea which he had bought at a local shop. Zimmerman said he spotted Martin, who was wearing a hoody, on his way to the store, and called the police to report a "suspicious male". He followed Martin, the two ended up in a fight, and Zimmerman shot the teenager.

The case took six weeks to even result in a charge being brought, due to Florida's "Stand Your Ground" laws, which greatly expand the scope under which self-defence can be used as a defence. Floridians may use lethal force if they fear for their own life, for the life of someone else, or to prevent a federal crime being committed. Crucially, there is no obligation to "retreat"; as a result, the laws are colloquially known as "shoot first" laws. Even before the law was passed, Miami's police chief warned of its possible outcome:

Whether it's trick-or-treaters or kids playing in the yard of someone who doesn't want them there or some drunk guy stumbling into the wrong house… you're encouraging people to possibly use deadly physical force where it shouldn't be used.

Florida's implementation of Stand Your Ground actually protects the accused from even answering allegations in court, which is why it took so long for charges to be brought in the Martin case. But when the charges were brought, some thing they were the wrong ones. Jonathan Turley, a law professor at GWU, writes:

Many of us from the first day of the indictment criticized State Attorney Angela Corey for overcharging the case as second-degree murder… This was clearly a challenging case even for manslaughter and the decision to push second-degree murder (while satisfying to many in the public) was legally and tactically unwise. The facts simply did not support a claim beyond a reasonable doubt that George Zimmerman acted with intent and a “depraved mind, hatred, malice, evil intent or ill will.” Had Corey charged manslaughter, the case might have been closer but would have still been a challenge.

The legal case is, apparently, closed. But the political one remains open; the laws which allowed and encouraged this death need not be in place forever, and hopefully this will provide the impetus to change for the better.