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 In US, Columbus Day Still Generates Controversy

Holiday marks date Columbus discovered Americas, but some are offended by legacy because he enslaved many natives he encountered More

Video Through Sports, Austria Tries to Give Migrants Traction

With 85,000 people expected to claim asylum in Austria this year, its government has made integration through joint physical activities a key objective More

Video Kickboxing Champion Shares Sport With Young Migrants

Pouring into Europe by hundreds of thousands, some migrants, especially youngsters, are finding sports a way to integrate into new host countries More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemeni
Henry Ridgwell
October 12, 2015 4:03 PM
The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemen

The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video No Resolution in Sight to US House Speaker Drama

Uncertainty grips the U.S. Congress, where no consensus replacement has emerged to succeed Republican House Speaker John Boehner after his surprise resignation announcement. Half of Congress is effectively leaderless weeks before America risks defaulting on its national debt and enduring another partial government shutdown.

Video New Art Exhibit Focuses on Hope

Out of struggle and despair often comes hope. That idea is behind a new art exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. "The Big Hope Show" features 25 artists, some of whom overcame trauma and loss. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Columbus Day Still Generates Controversy as US Holiday

The second Monday of October is Columbus Day in the United States, honoring explorer Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the Americas. The achievement is a source of pride for many, but for some the holiday is marked by controversy. Adrianna Zhang has more.

Video Anger Simmers as Turks Begin to Bury Blast Victims

The Turkish army carried out new air strikes on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets on Sunday, a day after the banned group announced a unilateral cease fire. The air raids apparently are in retaliation for the Saturday bombing in Turkey's capital Ankara that killed at least 95 people and wounded more than 200 others. But as Zlatica Hoke reports, there are suspicions that Islamic State is involved.

Video Bombings a Sign of Turkey’s Deep Troubles

Turkey has begun a three-day period of mourning following Saturday’s bomb attacks in the capital, Ankara, that killed nearly 100 people. With contentious parliamentary elections three weeks away, the attacks highlight the challenges Turkey is facing as it struggles with ethnic friction, an ongoing migrant crisis, and growing tensions with Russia. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Afghanistan’s Progress Aided by US Academic Center

Recent combat in Afghanistan has shifted world attention back to the central Asian nation’s continuing civil war and economic challenges. But, while there are many vexing problems facing Afghanistan’s government and people, a group of academics in Omaha, Nebraska has kept a strong faith in the nation’s future through programs to improve education. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Omaha, Nebraska.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video In 'He Named Me Malala,' Guggenheim Finds Normal in Extraordinary

Davis Guggenheim’s documentary "He Named Me Malala" offers a probing look into the life of 18-year-old Malala Yousafsai, the Pakistani teenager who, in 2012, was shot in the head by the Taliban for standing up for her right to education in her hometown in Pakistan's Swat Valley. Guggenheim shows how, since then, Malala has become a symbol not as a victim of brutal violence, but as an advocate for girls’ education throughout the world. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.

Video Paintable Solar Cells May Someday Replace Silicon-Based Panels

Solar panels today are still factory-manufactured, with the use of some highly toxic substances such as cadmium chloride. But a researcher at St. Mary’s College, Maryland, says we are close to being able to create solar panels by painting them on a suitable surface, using nontoxic solutions. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs