Who started the fight? As the struggle escalated, who was the aggressor? What about Trayvon’s behavior proves he did not cause Zimmerman to fear great injury or death (which is required by Florida law for justified use of deadly force in self-defense)? Exactly what was happening in the altercation that proves Zimmerman unlawfully fired his gun?
The state offered no version of events that answered these questions convincingly enough to rule out all doubt. As Judge Debra Nelson told the jury before sending them to deliberate, “It is not necessary for George Zimmerman to prove anything.”
The state, seeming to realize their case was faltering, changed strategies on the last day of testimony. Acting more as defense attorneys than prosecutors, the state tossed out several plausible versions of events to undermine Zimmerman’s account, such as their assertion that Trayvon may have been pulling away when the shot was fired.
“This only magnified the degree of reasonable doubt that exists,” former Florida prosecutor Elizabeth Parker says. “The state did not meet its burden of proof of the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt.”
On Thursday, Guy’s co-counsel, Bernie de la Rionda, rested the state’s case by highlighting the many alarming inconsistencies in Zimmerman’s statements. But he posed too many open-ended questions to the jury that he should have answered with a full, alternate account supported by the evidence.
The state’s case was nothing more than “What ifs,” defense attorney Mark O’Mara said in his closing argument on Friday. “I don’t think they get to say to you, ‘What do you think?’ ” he told the jurors. “No, no, no. No, no, no. ‘What have I proved to you?’ “
The thin evidence in this case isn’t the prosecution’s fault. There were no true eyewitnesses, it seems. But blame should be placed with Sanford, Fla., police for whisking Zimmerman in for questioning and releasing him while leaving Trayvon’s body, and valuable evidence, uncollected at the scene for hours — as rain probably washed away clues.
Clearly, the prosecution worked against itself by “overcharging” Zimmerman. Filing the most serious charge is a tool “often used,” Parker says, because prosecutors know juries likely will be told by judges to consider a conviction on lesser charges.
In this case, the state’s safety valve is the charge of manslaughter. By convincing the judge to include manslaughter, the state rightly or not sent the message, “We might not have proved the crime we were supposed to, but trust us, Zimmerman is guilty of something.”
For those who see this case as a reckoning for countless injustices against young black men, if the maneuver results in a conviction, so be it.
Corey Dade, an award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C., is a former national correspondent at NPR and political reporter at the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and other news organizations. Follow him on Twitter.