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 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT