Tuesday, July 16, 2013



A bitter lesson in the law

The prosecutors of George Zimmerman need a refresher course in criminal law. If you’re a prosecutor and you believe you are putting an evil-doer away, first you have to convict him. This means proving he’s an evil-doer by proving who did the evil act.

O.J. Simpson (shown in 1990)
That’s not always easy, as we saw last week in Florida. Even an assistant professor of criminal law at the Bald Knob University of Law, Floral Arranging and Mortuary Science could have told the Zimmerman prosecutors there are no slam dunks in murder trials. Once a case goes to a jury of independent minds with nothing on those minds but the evidence before them, all bets are off. Juries duly instructed can do anything they please with the evidence, and the wonder and beauty of the system is that jurors with so much license invariably take their responsibilities very, very seriously. They’re determined to do the right thing by the law.

Jude M. Faccidomo, a former president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, tells the Miami Herald that he thinks the Zimmerman jury clearly believed the right to self-defense applied in this case. “Especially when cases are so gray, like this one was, self-defense really resonates because people can associate with being afraid.” This is what laymen have concluded, too.

Lawyers across the land, with a criminal practice or not, will study this one for a long time. Why was the six-person jury - its members' identities still kept secret - not more racially diverse? Florida is a surviving melting pot, with newly minted citizens from dozens of nations to choose juries from, and an all-white, all-black or all-Hispanic jury is an anomaly in the counties of central and south Florida. Would one or two black jurors have made a difference in the Zimmerman verdict? Why did the state accept a jury that was all white save one, thought to be Hispanic? Why the all-female panel? Would defense lawyers think one or two men on the jury might make them more confident of a favorable verdict?

In the view from the defense table, this jury couldn’t have been better. You can’t get a better verdict than “not guilty,” no matter who delivers it. Many lawyers are contemptuous of the Zimmerman prosecutors. It looked easy enough to the angry demonstrators that a cave man could have won a conviction. “After seeing the quality of the evidence presented by the state,” says Larry Handfield, a prominent black lawyer in Miami, “the diversity of the jury really didn’t matter in the end. But it would have helped the community in giving more credibility to the decision to acquit Zimmerman.”
The prosecutors of O.J. Simpson were similarly confounded by the “not guilty” verdict in their case. The evidence against him looked so overwhelming, and the slayings – not one, but two victims in the iconic pool of blood – were horrific enough to sway the unwary. Everyone “knew” O.J. was guilty but the state forgot to prove it. O.J. walked, vowing to “go to the ends of the earth” to find his wife’s killer, but after searching every golf course in south Florida he gave up, and promptly got in trouble again.

Every lawyer learns never to ask a question unless he knows the answer he’ll get, and knows his client will give the same answer no matter how the question is asked. The O.J. Simpson prosecutors forgot this fundamental instruction, and when they asked O.J. to put on a glove found at the murder scene he was happy to oblige. He couldn’t get his hand in it, no matter how hard he tugged, and Johnny Cochran coined the clinching argument: “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” And so the jury did. The state’s first witness against George Zimmerman turned out to be the best witness for the defense. Didn’t the prosecutors know what Rachel Jeantel’s answers would be?

Given the threats against Mr. Zimmerman and the jurors now floating above the fever swamps of the Internet, the judge is wise to keep their names secret. But the inside dope is on the way. Juror No. B37 and her husband, a lawyer, have signed a literary agent and a book is on the way.

Explanations won’t satisfy the hysterics who shut down Times Square and the Santa Monica freeway in Los Angeles to protest the Zimmerman jury’s verdict. They’re entitled to their disappointment, if not to the public streets. If they read the newspapers they might learn something about how the world works, and how the prosecutors, not the jurors, offended the memory of Trayvon Martin.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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