Zimmerman jury heard less than it should

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The six jurors rendering a verdict at George Zimmerman's trial weren't mind readers. They had no idea whether the doughy man who sat at the defendant's table mastering a vacant expression throughout the trial was guilty.

All they knew for sure was that he was a killer -- that much wasn't in dispute.

The question before them was whether the defendant, the admitted killer of an unarmed 17-year-old boy, was guilty of "depraved indifference" when he shot and killed Trayvon Benjamin Martin.

Was it self-defense that prompted George Zimmerman to pull the trigger -- or was it some darker impulse? Because the defendant chose not to testify on his own behalf, the inconsistencies in his previous accounts of what happened that night were a nettlesome abstraction.

With Trayvon Martin dead and gone for more than 17 months, the only other person who could say what happened that evening chose to speak through legal surrogates.

After several weeks of hearing from neighbors on the periphery of the killing, the contradictory expert witnesses and defense and prosecution attorneys with their never-ending primers about what constituted reasonable doubt, the jury was ready to exercise its civic duty.

As they received the judge's instructions about how to calculate various degrees of murder, the jurors were confronted with an unacknowledged moral conundrum -- how to weigh reasonable doubt without direct testimony from the killer about what he was feeling at the time of the shooting. They would have to content themselves with his testimony as mediated through the funhouse mirror of his lawyers' account of that night.

According to Mr. Zimmerman's lawyers, the now Buddha-like defendant was not the initial aggressor -- Trayvon Martin was. What had originally been a straightforward tale of an armed and overzealous neighborhood watch vigilante following and confronting a hoodie-wearing stranger in the apartment complex was turned on its head.

In the defense lawyers' hands, Trayvon Martin became a Skittles-wielding, Arizona Tea-swigging gangsta thug who, contrary to "lies" concocted in the media, stalked and violently accosted Mr. Zimmerman, who was purportedly the only one minding his own business that night.

The defendant, who had studied mixed martial arts extensively, was allegedly such an inept fighter that the unarmed teenager demolished his defenses within seconds and had him on the ground, banging his head into concrete with ferocity.

The defense team portrayed Trayvon Martin as an urban Terminator -- a lanky, muscular, indefatigable hood warrior who made George Zimmerman cry while unloading haymakers to his face and head. In this scenario, the teenager reached for the defendant's gun. Only the beaten and humiliated man's quick shooting prevented him from being murdered.

It was up to the jury to determine whether the sophistry of the defense lawyers provided enough reasonable doubt to make the difference between sentencing their client to many decades in prison or granting his freedom. Would the lawyers' scenario overwhelm the jury's own sense of how the world works?

The jury knew George Zimmerman was a killer when they began their deliberations, but it was their duty to determine whether the killing of Trayvon Martin was justified under Florida law.

They had the judge's instructions. They were swimming in a sea of law, legalese and the case's ugly, unstated subtext. It was a case about race, class and irrational fear of black men, but neither side dealt with those issues openly, only in code. It was a case that was more remarkable because of what was not said by either side.

Would it be easier for the jurors, with their own decades of biases and experiences, to put themselves in Trayvon Martin's shoes or the defendant's? Which story was less preposterous to six women, given their own experience in the world? And with Trayvon Martin unable to testify and the defendant unwilling to, could they imagine a scenario in which the guy who emerged from the conflict alive was actually guilty? Could their imagination become an act of empathetic justice?

The defense began the trial with a knock-knock joke that baffled everyone and insulted the jury's intelligence. Given the "not guilty" verdict the jurors came to on Saturday night, it may have been weirdly prophetic:

"Knock, knock. Who's there? George Zimmerman. George Zimmerman who? ... Alright good, you're on the jury."

Welcome to George Zimmerman's world, America. You're on the jury.

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Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNorman.


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