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

VOA Exclusive: Interview With Myanmar President Thein Sein

Thein Sein calls allegations that minority Muslim Rohingya are fleeing alleged torture in Rakhine state a media fabrication More

Video Better Protective Suit Sought for Ebola Caregivers

Current suit is uncomfortable, requires too many steps for removal, increasing chance of deadly contact with virus More

UN Rights Commission Investigates Eritrea

Three-member commission will start collecting first-hand information from victims and other witnesses in Switzerland and Italy next week More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concernsi
X
November 19, 2014 11:39 PM
The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Mexico Protests Escalate Over Disappearances

Protests in Mexico over 43 students missing since September continue to escalate, reflecting growing anger among Mexicans about a political system they view as corrupt, and increasingly tainted by the drug trade. Mounting outrage over the disappearances is now focused on the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto, accused of not doing enough to end insecurity in the country. More from VOA's Victoria Macchi.
Video

Video US Senate Votes Down Controversial Oil Pipeline - For Now

The U.S. Senate has rejected construction of a controversial pipeline to transport Canadian oil to American refineries. The $5 billion project still could be approved next year, but it faces a possible veto by President Barack Obama. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the pipeline has exposed deep divisions in Congress about America’s energy future.
Video

Video Can Minsk Cease-fire Agreement Hold?

Growing tensions between government troops and separatists in eastern Ukraine further threaten a cease-fire agreement reached two months ago in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Critics of U.S. policy in Ukraine say it is time the Obama administration gives up on that much-violated cease-fire and moves toward a new deal with Russia. VOA's Scott Stearns has more.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Ferguson Church Grapples with Race Relations

Many white residents of Ferguson, Missouri, say they chose to live there because of the American Midwest community's diversity. So, they were shocked when a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager in August – and shaken by the resulting protests and violence. Some local churches are leading conversations on how to go forward. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports.
Video

Video What Jon Stewart Learned About Iran From 'Rosewater'

Jon Stewart, host of the satirical news program "The Daily Show" talks with Saman Arbabi of Voice of America's Persian service about Stewart's directorial debut, "Rosewater."
Video

Video Lebanese Winemakers Thrive Despite War Next Door

In some of the most volatile parts of Lebanon, where a constant flow of refugees crosses the border from Syria, one industry continues to flourish against the odds. Lebanese winemakers say after surviving a brutal civil war in the 1970s and 80s, they can survive anything. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.
Video

Video China's Rise Closely Watched

China’s role as APEC host this week allowed a rare opportunity for Beijing to showcase its vision for the global economy and the region. But as China’s stature grows, so have tensions with other countries, including the United States. VOA’s Bill Ide in Beijing reports on how China’s rise as a global power is seen among Chinese and Americans.

All About America

AppleAndroid