Inquirer Editorial: Zimmerman's acquittal shouldn't lead to riches

George Zimmerman smiles after the jury delivered a not-guilty verdict in the slaying of Trayvon Martin.
George Zimmerman smiles after the jury delivered a not-guilty verdict in the slaying of Trayvon Martin.
Posted: July 16, 2013

It would be a shame if the unnecessary death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin produced more paydays for the man who fatally shot the unarmed black teenager in the heart during a scuffle.

But George Zimmerman, the Sanford, Fla., neighborhood watch captain who has already received hundreds of thousands of dollars from gun-rights advocates and other supporters, is likely to be offered millions through lucrative book and movie deals.

Zimmerman, 29, was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges late Saturday night by a sequestered jury that had deliberated about 16 hours over two days. The five-week-trial had included more than 50 witnesses and 60 pieces of evidence.

That a verdict was returned at night almost seemed by design to reduce the possibility of sparking protests that might turn violent. But heated arguments stemming from Martin's death at the hands of the white Hispanic defendant 17 months ago will likely continue for a long time. People remain bitterly divided not only by race, but their attitudes toward Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground law.

The eight-year-old law, which has been mimicked in more than 20 other states, is an abomination. It extends the so-called Castle Doctrine - which gives a person the legal right to use deadly force in his home - to anywhere, anytime. Zimmerman's lawyers contended that Florida's law, which does not require a person to use deadly force only as a last resort, gave their client the right to shoot Martin. They presented testimony suggesting that Zimmerman, though he outweighed Martin, was unable to protect himself otherwise in their fight.

Given that the law was such a huge hurdle to overcome, the decision to charge Zimmerman with second-degree murder is being criticized by other legal experts. Indeed, the prosecutors all but admitted failure to prove that charge when late in the trial they succeeded in getting the judge to instruct the all-female jury - five white women and one Hispanic - that they could also consider convicting Zimmerman of the lesser charge of manslaughter. But in the end, Stand Your Ground prevailed.

One can only imagine how events might have turned out the night Martin was killed had it not been for this law that encourages people to shoot first and ask questions later. Zimmerman said he wasn't familiar with the Stand Your Ground law, but that was one of several lies he told, including trying to hide $135,000 he had raised for his defense online. The law was covered extensively in a criminal-justice course that he took in college when he was thinking of becoming a policeman. Were it not for knowing about the latitude that Stand Your Ground provided, would Zimmerman have been armed and on the streets looking for trouble?

There is only a small chance that federal authorities will charge Zimmerman with violating Martin's civil rights. More likely, his next court date, if there is one, will be in a wrongful-death trial similar to the one that made sure O.J. Simpson didn't benefit financially after being exonerated in the death of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson. Ironically, that trial, which also divided America by race, provided a black defendant and a white victim. Eighteen years later, people still disagree about the Simpson verdict, just as they disagree about Zimmerman's. But their arguments won't bring either victim back to life.

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