Jury instructions at center of Zimmerman verdict


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SANFORD, Fla. -- Jurors who acquitted George Zimmerman of all charges were guided in their deliberations by 27 pages of jury instructions that included two sections giving them an option to find him not guilty: justifiable use of deadly force and reasonable doubt.

The acquittal of the former neighborhood watch leader left many Americans wondering Sunday how the justice system could allow him to walk away from the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager whose death provoked a long national debate over racial profiling and self-defense.

But the essential criteria for deciding the case came from the court itself, which told jurors that Mr. Zimmerman was allowed to use deadly force when he shot the teen not only if he actually faced death or bodily harm, but also if he merely thought he did.

And jurors heard plenty of conflicting evidence and testimony that could have created reasonable doubt.

Some Martin family supporters may never understand the gap between the legal basis for the acquittal and what they perceived as the proper outcome: Mr. Zimmerman's conviction for either second-degree murder or manslaughter.

"There is a difference between the law and what people think is fundamentally justice," said Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group.

Under Florida law, jurors were told to decide whether Mr. Zimmerman was justified in using deadly force by the circumstances he was under when he fired his gun. The instructions they were given said they should take into account the physical capabilities of both Mr. Zimmerman, 29, and the 17-year-old Martin youth. And if they had any reasonable doubt on whether Mr. Zimmerman was justified in using deadly force, they should find him not guilty.

"Beyond a reasonable doubt" is the highest standard of proof prosecutors face in American criminal courts. It means the jurors believe there is no other logical explanation for what happened than the defendant is guilty. If faced with two plausible explanations for what happened, jurors are supposed to acquit.

"The danger facing George Zimmerman need not have been actual; however, to justify the use of deadly force, the appearance must have been so real that a reasonably cautious and prudent person ... would have believed the danger could be avoided only through the use of that force," the instruction read.

After the verdict, Jacksonville State Attorney Angela Corey said the use of deadly force is often one of the toughest areas of the law for prosecutors. Gov. Rick Scott appointed her office to the case a few weeks after the shooting when local prosecutors didn't press charges.

She said that when a victim shoots a robber or rapist, the use of deadly force is clearly justifiable. In cases such as Mr. Zimmerman's, the lines get blurry.

"That's why this case was unique, in a sense, and that's why this case was difficult," she said.

Even defense attorneys, who use the law to their advantage, say the instruction for the justifiable use of deadly force can be confusing to jurors since there are so many elements to it. It's one of the longest instructions given jurors.

"The more complex the instruction, the more it benefits the defense," said Blaine McChesney, an Orlando defense attorney and former prosecutor with no connection to the Zimmerman case. "It's a very convoluted instruction, but it's the best they have."

Jurors were also told that reasonable doubt about Mr. Zimmerman's guilt could come from conflicting evidence or the lack of evidence.

Over three weeks of testimony, they received mounds of conflicting evidence and testimony of what happened on that rainy February 2012 night after Mr. Zimmerman spotted the Martin youth walking in his Sanford townhouse complex after the teen bought Skittles candy and iced tea from a nearby 7-Eleven. Mr. Zimmerman didn't recognize the youth, who lived in the Miami area and was visiting the home of his father's fiancee. The neighborhood had experienced burglaries and some people had reported the suspects seen fleeing were young black males, like the Martin youth.

After calling police dispatchers, Mr. Zimmerman got out of his vehicle and followed the teen. Mr. Zimmerman says the Martin youth attacked him. Prosecutors disputed that. The evidence was unclear.

None of Mr. Zimmerman's neighbors saw or heard the entire fight, and eyewitnesses gave differing accounts of whether Mr. Zimmerman or the Martin youth was on top. The teen's parents testified it was their son screaming for help on 911 calls made by Mr. Zimmerman's neighbors. Mr. Zimmerman's parents testified that no, it was their son. The fight ended seconds after the screams when Mr. Zimmerman fired one shot from his handgun into the Martin youth's heart.

Mr. Zimmerman identifies himself as Hispanic. His mother was born in Peru and is a naturalized U.S. citizen. His father is a white American.

nation - legalnews


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