For various reasons, I’ve deliberately stayed away from commenting on the whole George Zimmerman/Florida stand-your-ground case, but after last night’s news that the special prosecutor has charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder, and seeing and hearing the way the media has reported on it since, I felt the need to chime in.
Much is being made out of the prosecutor’s decision to charge Zimmerman, specifically, with second-degree murder. Don’t be disillusioned by this—it’s really insignificant, and here’s why: If you’ve read any of what I’ve written about prosecutors overcharging crimes, this shouldn’t come as a shock to you. The prosecutor in this case charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder because it’s the highest crime that she could charge him with. Period. What that means is that according to the facts that are now known (or believed), it’s possible that a jury could find that when Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, he acted with total disregard for human life. The fact that he is charged with murder does not mean that a jury could not convict him of a lesser crime (e.g. manslaughter, or some version of negligent homicide).
I’m not saying that he is guilty of any of the above (nor am I saying that he’s not guilty!). When someone who is charged with murder claims self-defense, the prosecution is still required to prove the elements of murder beyond a reasonable doubt, but once they do that, the burden falls on the accused to demonstrate that he acted in self-defense. The jury then gets to decide whether he acted reasonably under the circumstances. If they do find that he acted reasonably, they can convict him of a lesser crime, or acquit. If, on the other hand, the prosecutor had only charged Zimmerman with manslaughter, then that would be the most serious crime that he could be convicted of. In reality, charging Zimmerman with murder was probably just a way to leverage a plea (to a higher degree crime).
Regardless of the prosecution’s motives, this is not the time to scrutinize the investigation. That time has passed: Trayvon Martin’s family wanted an arrest, and they got one. Does this mean that justice has been served? Hardly. The case is far from over, but now it’s time to let the prosecutor, defense counsel, and our criminal justice system do their jobs.