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Prosecutor aimed too high with second degree murder charges in Trayvon Martin case

April 12, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
So neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman is facing second degree murder charges for the Feb. 26 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla.

I guess we will have to wait and see the results of the case, but I think the special prosecutor is likely aiming too high in bringing second degree murder charges, which alleges that Zimmerman deliberately murdered the boy.

According to news reports, the shooting was the result of an altercation between the 28-year-old Zimmerman, whose father is white and whose mother is originally from Peru and who identifies himself as Hispanic, and Martin, who was black. Martin was walking back from a trip to the store, chatting on his cell phone with his girlfriend, when neighborhood watch volunteer Zimmerman spotted him and thought he looked suspicious. Zimmerman called the police dispatcher and reported as much and said he was going to follow Martin; the dispatcher told him he didn't need to do that, but Zimmerman got out of his vehicle and followed the boy anyway. According to a lawyer hired by Martin's family, who interviewed Martin's girlfriend, Martin told the girl that someone was following him but said he wasn't going to run away as she urged him to.

What happened next is in dispute and will have to be decided at trial, but Zimmerman told police he feared for his life when he shot Martin dead. Zimmerman also reportedly had head injuries, allegedly caused during a scuffle with Martin. Zimmerman wasn't arrested immediately after the incident, but there has been so much pressure brought by Martin's family and civil rights activists over the case that it was probably inevitable that charges would be brought.

Based on what I know about the facts of the case, I don't think they're likely to get a jury to convict Zimmerman of second degree murder. Even manslaughter might be a stretch, given Florida's stand your ground law, which says that a person in fear of his life, who is not committing an unlawful act, does not have to flee from danger but can confront the attacker. I thought reckless endangerment charges, or the local equivalent, would be much more reasonable since Zimmerman's choice to follow Martin instead of staying in the car, as was strongly suggested by the dispatcher, set off the entire incident with its tragic consequences.

It sounds to me like Martin, afraid for his own safety, turned on Zimmerman and, if Zimmerman's statement is true, physically attacked the man who had been following him before Zimmerman could attack him. If Martin had killed Zimmerman instead of the other way around, he might be the one facing charges and would also be likely to be acquitted.

Even reckless endangerment might be a hard conviction to get, though. As someone pointed out to me, Zimmerman wasn't breaking any laws when he got out to follow Martin. He was under no obligation to obey the dispatcher's instructions. He had a legal permit to carry the gun he used to shoot Martin. Even if he "profiled" Martin as a possible danger because he was a black teenager wearing a hoodie, Zimmerman wouldn't have been breaking any laws, even if he was acting under racist assumptions. It is not against the law to simply ask someone what he is doing in the neighborhood. Zimmerman sounds to me like a wannabe cop. He has a background of making lots of 911 calls to report suspicious activity in the neighborhood and failed to complete a couple of law enforcement training programs. He probably bears a lot of moral responsibility for what happened, but I don't think he's legally responsible.

I predict Zimmerman will be acquitted of second degree murder charges, unless the prosecution is especially good at picking a sympathetic jury and Zimmerman's defense team is enormously incompetent, but it will be interesting to see how the case progresses.


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