Thinking legally about the Zimmerman verdict

The not guilty verdict leaving George Zimmerman free of any criminal liability for killing Trayvon Martin demonstrates the limits of law in achieving justice. Like the drug dealer going free because of an illegal search or the hit man walking away because witnesses are too terrified to testify, Zimmerman goes free because the law sometimes protects those who are morally guilty as sin.

Even though he has been found not guilty, Zimmerman may not be done with the legal system. Here’s a quick snapshot of what happened and what lies ahead.

Part one: Not guilty verdict

The State of Florida, slowly and reluctantly prosecuting George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin, failed to convince a jury that he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s a complicated legal question (see Justin Peters’ explanation), but not a particularly surprising result.

When Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, he was relying on a long history of impunity for southern white men who attack black men. He was also relying on recent legislation that grows, in significant part, from racism and fear: the 2005 Florida Stand Your Ground law that allows someone in a public place to use deadly force rather than retreating from a threat.  According to CBS News:

“According to state crime stats, Florida averaged 12 ‘justifiable homicide’ deaths a year from 2000-2004. After ‘Stand your Ground’ was passed in 2005, the number of ‘justifiable’ deaths has almost tripled to an average of 35 a year, an increase of 283% from 2005-2010.”

ALEC and the National Rifle Association are pushing for more state Stand Your Ground laws. Minnesota’s Republican legislature passed one in 2012, but it was vetoed by Governor Mark Dayton.

Part two: Civil rights case

The NAACP has launched a petition demanding that the U.S. Department of Justice prosecute George Zimmerman for violating the civil rights of Trayvon Martin. So many people tried to sign the petition in the hours after the acquittal that the website crashed. (It’s been reposted at, if you want to sign it.) The simple petition reads:

The Department of Justice has closely monitored the State of Florida’s prosecution of the case against George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin murder since it began. Today, with the acquittal of George Zimmerman, it is time for the Department of Justice to act.

The most fundamental of civil rights — the right to life — was violated the night George Zimmerman stalked and then took the life of Trayvon Martin. We ask that the Department of Justice file civil rights charges against Mr. Zimmerman for this egregious violation.

Please address the travesties of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin by acting today.

I’m not sure what a civil rights lawsuit would look like. The civil rights statute most commonly used in such lawsuits is 42 USC 1983, which says:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable. For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congress applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia.

This law clearly applies to police abuses and other actions of government officials, but has also been used against private persons. As a law review article by Sina Kian (87 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 132) explains:

The second way to act “under color of” state law is to run amok as the Ku Klux Klan once did, depriving individuals of their constitutional rights with reasonable knowledge, from custom, that the state threatened no interference to their anarchy.

Sounds about like “Stand Your Ground” to me.

Part three: Civil lawsuit for wrongful death

Trayvon Martin’s parents could also sue George Zimmerman in civil court for wrongful death. This would mean suing for money damages, a sadly inadequate remedy. Such a lawsuit would cost a lot, and probably wouldn’t get anything — it seems unlikely that Zimmerman has enough money to pay a judgment against him.

x x x x x x

Moral questions are considerably different from the legal question of criminal guilt. Is there anyone in the country who believes that George Zimmerman would have disregarded police instructions and followed and finally shot a white boy carrying a bag of Skittles home from the store? If there is, I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I’d like to sell that person.


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2 responses to “Thinking legally about the Zimmerman verdict

  1. Pingback: Thinking personally about Trayvon Martin | News Day

  2. What no one is talking about is a suit against the association that enlisted George Zimmerman. It is not only a reasonable and strongly culpable source of liability but also has deeper pockets. Zimmerman was (and ethically, still is, their agent, not just out on a frolic.


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