As controversy continues over the verdict in George Zimmerman’s fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin — protestors continue demonstrations, the Justice Department is considering civil rights charges and the victim’s parents contemplate filing a civil lawsuit — legal experts have been weighing in on the nuances of the trial.
Several Birmingham attorneys said they feel that Zimmerman’s “not guilty” verdict was inevitable due to the absence of clear facts about the circumstances of Martin’s death. The local lawyers said they believe the jury made a fair call in light of the evidence provided, but that the case raised important issues, some of them still unresolved.
“I watched a good bit of the trial, and I didn’t see how they could possibly convict him with the lack of evidence in the state’s argument,” said David Oglesby, a former defense lawyer and current divorce attorney. “The defense had such an easy job that I feel like I could’ve won that case from their side, even though I haven’t practiced criminal defense law in years.”
These Birmingham lawyers shared the opinion that the verdict also resulted from a lackluster performance by the prosecution. Attorney Adolph Dean said he felt the prosecutors lost the case more than the defense won. A former assistant U.S. attorney and senior trial counsel at the Securities and Exchange Commission, Dean successfully litigated several Ponzi scheme frauds, such as the widely publicized Thomas Petters fraud case in 2009.
“Everything thing that the prosecutors could possibly screw up, they screwed up,” said Dean. “They didn’t present enough hard facts, their witness prep was very poor, and they failed to provide the jury with a coherent narrative to follow.”
Dean cited the ineffective use of star prosecution witness Rachel Jeantel as one of the ways the state botched their argument.
“Instead of using the young lady to paint a picture of the night for the jury, the prosecution set her up unprepared on the witness stand and allowed the defense attorney to make a fool out of her,” said Dean. “She clearly didn’t want to be in that courtroom and her attitude hurt their case a lot.”
In spite of the prosecution’s poor case, Dean still has trouble believing certain aspects of the defense’s claim regarding Zimmerman’s injuries.
“I just don’t see that young boy breaking Zimmerman’s nose, knocking him to the ground and making him look like he just come from World War III, all in the span of 45 seconds,” said Dean. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Unknowns regarding the rainy Sanford, Florida night of Martin’s death perpetuated throughout the entirety of the trial. It is not entirely clear what happened during much of the encounter between Zimmerman and Martin in the Twin Lakes gated community. Who attacked first? And how badly? A few pieces of forensic evidence are the only indication. A voice on a 911 call screaming for help was said to belong to Zimmerman by the defense and to Martin by the prosecution. No definitive proof ever came forth in the trial.
In spite of the ambiguities of the case, veteran Birmingham defense attorney Richard Jaffe said he believes people who were not in the courtroom for the entirety of the trial should respect the jury’s decision, even as the media continues to scrutinize the jurors in the days following the verdict and Zimmerman himself has gone into hiding due to an enormous amount of death threats.
“After trying 2,300 major felony cases, I know that you never really know how a trial appears unless you’re in the courtroom watching every part of it,” said Jaffe. “I believe the evidence in the Zimmerman trial could support manslaughter, but I would never second guess the jury.”
Defense lawyer and former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who successfully prosecuted two of the Klansmen who bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963, also said he felt the Zimmerman prosecutors made some serious mistakes. Jones said the state erred by overcharging Zimmerman and making race such a heavy part of the trial. He insists it overshadowed the true significance of the Trayvon Martin incident.
“The prosecution did an okay job — they had a much harder job than most people expected,” said Jones. “But in overcharging Zimmerman with second degree murder, they took the focus off of the real point of the tragedy — the death of a child — and made the whole situation about Zimmerman being a racist.”
Drenched in racial sentiments since Martin’s fatal shooting February 26, 2012, the Zimmerman case has polarized many Americans. Some assert that Zimmerman profiled Martin and shot him dead because of prejudice against African-Americans. Others state that race was not an issue in the case and that Zimmerman’s killing of the 17-year-old was purely an act of self-defense.
Jaffe said he thinks race is an inevitable part of any criminal trial.
“Race is always there whether or not it is mentioned,” said Jaffe. “It was there in O.J.’s case and every case involving various races — it just varies in what extent it is highlighted.”
Race was certainly highlighted to a great extent in the Zimmerman case. Attorney Frank Farish said he feels this emphasis was both unnecessary and harmful.
“I don’t see how racism is a part of this case — the defendant took an African-American girl to prom,” said Farish. “Eleven black males died in Chicago violence last week, and I’m tired of people exploiting the Zimmerman trial and overshadowing other tragedies like these deaths.”
Jones said he does not feel the courtroom is the best place for a meaningful discussion on racism in our society.
“Whether or not racial profiling played a role in the death of Trayvon Martin, profiling is definitely an issue in this country and we need to have a much greater dialogue about it,” said Jones. “I just think that the use of a court proceeding as a referendum on race is not a good procedure.”
In the midst of this nationwide disagreement that rages on each day, Jones said there is an important lesson that everyone should take from the Trayvon’s death. He emphasized the potential importance of community watch volunteers in preventing crime, but cautioned that there is a fine line between policeman and citizen that needs to be explicitly drawn.
“I think the real message for all parties here is that George Zimmerman did the right thing by calling 911 when he saw something suspicious, but that the entire incident would have never occurred if he had stayed in his car as ordered by the police,” said Jones. “I hope some lesson about the proper role of community watch volunteers could come from this tragedy so that this young man will not have died completely in vain.”