News / USA

Explainer: The Trayvon Martin Verdict

Demonstrators block traffic on a highway in Los Angeles as they protest the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin trial on July 14.
Demonstrators block traffic on a highway in Los Angeles as they protest the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin trial on July 14.
Heather Maher (RFE/RL)
The Florida jury that found George Zimmerman not guilty of killing unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin relied on a controversial Florida law to reach its verdict. RFE/RL takes a look at what's behind the public protests and the legal action Zimmerman could still face.

Why did a Florida jury conclude that George Zimmerman acted legally when he shot Trayvon Martin?

He won on a claim of self-defense.

Zimmerman, 29, who is of mixed white and Hispanic descent, spotted 17-year-old Martin, who was black, walking through his neighborhood one night in February 2012. After summoning the police because he thought Martin looked suspicious, Zimmerman got in his truck and followed the teenager, a loaded handgun tucked into his waistband. When he got out and confronted Martin, Zimmerman said the unarmed youth attacked him.

"Obviously we are ecstatic with the results. George Zimmerman was never guilty of anything except protecting himself in self-defense," Zimmerman's defense lawyer, Mark O'Mara, said after the verdict.

"I'm glad that the jury saw it that way and I hope that everyone who thinks, particularly those who doubted George's reasons and doubted his background now understand that the jury knew everything that they knew was enough for them to find him not guilty."

Why are Stand Your Ground laws controversial?

The initial investigation of the Trayvon Martin shooting sparked discussion of Florida's Stand Your Ground law. It says a person can use deadly force to fight back if they feel their life is in danger, even if fleeing is an option.

A long-standing principle of U.S. law is that citizens have the right to use lethal force in their own homes in self-defense -- without an obligation to retreat.

In recent years, many states, including Florida, have passed laws extending that right to public places.

Advocates for gun rights and crime victims say these Stand Your Ground laws are needed so people can defend themselves in public places without fear of legal consequence. Some 20 states have the law.

But critics say the law almost always favors white shooters and actually encourages violence, because people feel freer to use guns during confrontations.

A study by Texas A&M University found that murders and non-negligent manslaughters increased 8 percent in states that passed Stand Your Ground laws. 

The Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center found that a white person who kills a black person in a Stand Your Ground state is 354 percent more likely to be acquitted than if he had killed another white person. 

It's worth noting that the same study found that verdicts of justifiable homicides are "exceedingly rare," consisting of less than 2 percent of all U.S. murders.

Why has the verdict aroused so much public anger?

Zimmerman's acquittal reinforced the belief of many Americans that the U.S. justice system is prejudiced against black people. Some are comparing the verdict to the 1955 acquittal of two white men accused of killing Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy. That case helped spark the civil rights movement.

The day after the verdict, thousands of people in several cities protested the judgment.

A protester named Dave Schleicher in New York City's Times Square spoke for many when he said: "It's just a completely gross miscarriage of justice, and I feel everybody -- white, black, from all backgrounds, really -- should be concerned and horrified by this situation. Anybody with any concern for social justice really should be appalled that something like this is happening in the United States of America."

Are the protests likely to become violent?

There have been arrests and smashed car windows but no serious violence so far.

President Barack Obama -- who before the trial said if he had a son, he would look like Martin -- issued a statement that said the case "has elicited strong passions" but added: "We are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son."

Could Zimmerman face more legal action?

Zimmerman's legal troubles are far from over.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the Department of Justice's investigation begun last year into Martin's death will continue. Lawyers are examining evidence to see if Zimmerman violated any federal criminal civil-rights statutes.

Ben Jealous, the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), told CBS News on July 14 that his group wanted to see federal charges filed.

"Now, we focus on ensuring that our justice system continues its course. There may be a civil action brought by the family but there should definitely be criminal actions brought by [the Department of Justice, DOJ]. And we have asked DOJ to continue their investigation; they are indeed continuing," Jealous said.

"We hope that once everything has happened that can happen here in Florida -- because DOJ often waits until the end [of a state trial] -- that DOJ will act and will hold Mr. Zimmerman accountable for what he has done."

The Justice Department has a long history of using federal civil-rights law to prosecute defendants who a state has acquitted.

But former U.S. Attorney Alan Vinegrad said this case may be hard to bring. "There are several factual and legal hurdles that federal prosecutors would have to overcome," he said. "They'd have to show not only that the attack was unjustified, but that Mr. Zimmerman attacked Mr. Martin because of his race and because he was using a public facility, the street.''

Martin's family is almost certain to file a wrongful-death civil lawsuit against Zimmerman. A victory would only bring monetary damages, but would be symbolic.

O.J. Simpson was famously acquitted in the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, but a civil court found him guilty and ordered him to pay $25 million to the victims' families.

You May Like

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs