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Zimmerman case: Vigilantes for justice

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POSTED July 19, 2013 12:19 a.m.

George Zimmerman exhibited the good sense not to flash a triumphant high-five after a jury found him not guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter in the 2012 shooting death of an unarmed 17-year-old named Trayvon Martin. There was no public victory dance, only a quiet exit from the harsh public spotlight.

I had expected the jury to find Zimmerman guilty of manslaughter. After all, an armed adult shot and killed an unarmed teenager. Though Zimmerman’s attorneys deny that race was a factor, I figured Zimmerman found Martin “suspicious” because he was a black teen in a hoodie in a predominantly white gated community. If true, all the government had to do was prove it.

But once a case becomes a cable TV news staple, the odds of acquittal increase. Think O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony. High-profile cases draw top defense attorneys. Top lawyers know how to impress upon jurors the burden on the prosecution to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

On that, the prosecution failed. As The New York Times reported, after a three-week trial, the details of the fateful brawl between Zimmerman and Martin remained “a muddle, fodder for reasonable doubt. It remained unclear who had started it, who screamed for help, who threw the first punch.”

Also, there was a political taint to the case. In the weeks after the shooting, police refused to charge Zimmerman. Civil rights leaders protested; news reports misrepresented Zimmerman’s conversation with a 911 operator. Florida Gov. Rick Scott then assigned a special prosecutor, who overcharged Zimmerman with second-degree murder, which requires the state to establish ill will, hatred, spite or evil intent.

Rachel Jeantel, the friend with whom Martin was talking on the phone when he first encountered Zimmerman, testified that authorities first interviewed her at the home of Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton. Impartial investigators don’t question witnesses in front of the victim’s mother.

So though I suspect that Zimmerman was, as Martin told Jeantel, a “creepy-ass cracker” who didn’t understand where neighborhood watch ended and vigilantism began, I will trust the jury’s verdict.

Oddly, the folks protesting Zimmerman’s vigilantism the most loudly are acting like vigilantes themselves. In Oakland, protesters chanted: “Zimmerman, the people say guilty.” NAACP President Benjamin Jealous launched a petition urging the U.S. Department of Justice to file civil rights charges against Zimmerman. First the verdict and then the trial.

The Department of Justice is pursuing the case. On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder explained, “We are resolved, as you are, to combat violence involving or directed at young people, to prevent future tragedies and to deal with the underlying attitudes, mistaken beliefs and stereotypes that serve as the basis for these too common incidents.” Holder seems unaware that the FBI investigated but found no evidence of racial bias on the part of Zimmerman.

Martin’s parents have every right to sue Zimmerman in civil court for the wrongful death of their unarmed son.

But the Department of Justice should respect the jury and its verdict. The government doesn’t get to keep trying this guy until some jury finds him guilty.

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