Inside The Zimmerman Verdict

The verdict in the George Zimmerman trial raises questions about the legal strategies, the strength of the evidence, and the role of the legal system in addressing social issues. Host Michel Martin talks about all this with Georgetown law professor Paul Butler and TheRoot.com writer Jenee Desmond Harris.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We have decided to spend this hour again talking about the trial and now the verdict in the case of George Zimmerman. As we are sure you know by now, he is the Florida man who was acquitted over the weekend in the shooting death of an unarmed 17-year-old named Trayvon Martin. To quickly recap, Mr. Zimmerman followed Trayvon Martin because he thought he was acting suspiciously.

A confrontation between the two ensued, and Mr. Zimmerman shot the teen but was not immediately arrested. The arrest and charges came after a campaign of public pressure instigated by his parents. During our coverage of this emotional story, we have attempted to speak with interested individuals who represent all points of view. To that end, we will hear again from George Zimmerman's brother, Robert. We are then going to talk about some of the very intense conversations that have been sparked by the case, particularly on social media, and we'll conclude with a special parenting conversation. Because the jury returned its verdict on Saturday night when many families were home or spending time together, we know that many parents heard the verdict in the company of their children.

So we want to hear what they are saying to their children about it. That's all coming up. We're going to start, though, with legal analysis of the case. Joining us once again, Georgetown law professor Paul Butler. He's a former federal prosecutor. Also with us, Jenee Desmond-Harris. She is a lawyer. She trained at Harvard Law School. She's now a staff writer for The Root, and she's been following the case closely. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

PAUL BUTLER: It's great to be here, Michel.

JENEE DESMOND-HARRIS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Paul Butler, we talked to you before the case went to the jury, so we wanted to ask you quickly, to what do you attribute the outcome? There was so many - there was so much analysis throughout the case, and many people raised questions about the prosecution. They said that the case was overcharged.

They said that the prosecution made charges it couldn't prove, that they presented their message poorly. Some people feel that the defense simply did better, that the evidence simply didn't hold up, and this was a law enforcement failure from the beginning. So to what do you attribute the outcome here?

BUTLER: The prosecutors were outmaneuvered by the defense team and created reasonable doubt among the jurors. They effectively made the case about who was on top and who was on bottom during the fight. They put Trayvon Martin on trial. It was a cynical but brilliant strategy, especially in the conservative jurisdiction where this case was tried.

MARTIN: Jenee, you wrote an interesting piece for TheRoot.com, which is an online publication that focuses on issues of particular interest to African-Americans, and you raised - you pointed out that there's a big difference between the legal issues at hand here and how the case feels - if we can put it like that. So I just want to ask you to start with the legal issues.

DESMOND-HARRIS: Well, exactly, I think Barbara Arnwine of The Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights really hit the nail on the head after the verdict was announced when she said there's a difference between the law and what people fundamentally think justice is. That in no way minimizes the social and racial significance of this case and how it absolutely does represent large and serious issues. But the issue the jury looked at, which it was asked to decide was so narrow.

It was not about whether George Zimmerman was a racist. It wasn't about whether black lives have value. It wasn't about whether you are allowed to think a black man is scary and shoot him. That's what the nation was thinking about. But in fact, the jury was only asked to consider George Zimmerman's frame of mind in those moments right before he shot Trayvon Martin and whether - regardless of what happened before, although it's very important to us, it was not important to the jury -whether George Zimmerman reasonably feared for his life in those moments.

MARTIN: Paul Butler, you reference the conservative media. And we'll hear from somebody who's one of the founder, or one of the conservative news websites later on in the program who has a very distinct point of view about this. But the center of gravity in the conservative media seems to be that the case should never have been brought. And I wanted to ask you if they make, do they have a fair point?

BUTLER: No. If we reversed the races here, a not guilty verdict is impossible to imagine. So think about a big black man who followed a skinny white teenager, gets into a fight with him. The skinny white guy isn't armed, and the big black guy shoots him dead and then claims self-defense.

Does anybody think that a jury would buy that? So this was a reasonable case to bring, the prosecution just made some strategic mistakes. They didn't prepare their witnesses adequately. They didn't tell a story about what happened that persuaded the jury. Michel, if I'd been prosecuting this case, we would have at least had a manslaughter verdict.

MARTIN: Jenee, what do you think?

DESMOND-HARRIS: Well, I think Paul is right in that the outrage of the case is outrage over the way it served as a vessel for the things we already knew about race and racism in this country.

MARTIN: Knew - I think I would quibble with your word, your use of the word knew, because that's part of the argument here, is that there are a lot of people who simply do not believe and will insist that race is not a part of this, and they feel that very strongly. Just as there are other people who...

DESMOND-HARRIS: That's absolutely right. I should clarify that many of us knew and that many of us denied. It was a vessel for a lot of the issues that were on the table about race and racism in this country. So those things were not, sort of, formally part of the decision, but they absolutely infused it.

They infused everything that happened surrounding this case, from the very moment that George Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin to the moment when, I assume, the six jurors accepted the idea that Trayvon Martin was scary and threatening. I have a feeling that was more than a little bit informed by what we think about race and black men in this country.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the legal issues surrounding the George Zimmerman trial. Our guests are Jenee Desmond-Harris of TheRoot.com. She is a lawyer. She's now working as a staff writer for The Root. Also with us, Georgetown law professor and former federal prosecutor Paul Butler.

I want to ask a question again about the question of political pressure, because there was political pressure. I mean, the parents - and we spoke to them on this program - were very clear that they retained counsel, and they retained counsel for the purpose of applying pressure to law enforcement, because they did not think that law enforcement was taking this matter seriously. And Paul Butler, I want to ask if you think that was a factor in this case? Was it appropriate or not?

BUTLER: There's no question that this case would not have been brought but for the efforts of Trayvon's parents and their able counsel. That doesn't mean, though, that it shouldn't have been brought. All it does is expose how political the whole prosecution process is.

Not necessarily a bad thing, it's supposed to be responsive to democracy, so at least in the trial - which is what the parents said they wanted all along, just a trial - at least in the trial process, democracy worked.

MARTIN: Can I ask about the whole question of what happens now? Jenee Desmond-Harris, you wrote, your piece says that there is a disconnect often between what people were hoping for, what some people were hoping for and how they experienced this and the issues they hoped would be raised and the issues that were really before the court. So what do you think should happen now?

DESMOND-HARRIS: Well, I think at this point there is still - so this is not a context in which, in which, like I said, the jury was allowed to consider the issues of race and racism and fundamental injustice in this country that were on a lot of people's minds. There is actually, there's a space for the legal system to address race, and that's hate crimes prosecution, and that's why the NAACP is pressuring the Department of Justice to go forward with that.

That investigation was begun over a year ago. The FBI went down and talked to people about whether George Zimmerman was racist. You know, I'm not sure exactly how you get that from interviews, but that's what they did. And their finding was that there wasn't enough evidence really to go forward.

That doesn't mean, from my understanding, the Department of Justice cannot, but that would be one avenue that I think could address what everyone actually perceived this case to be about and the issues that are still left on the table after this verdict.

MARTIN: Paul Butler, what about you?

BUTLER: So a civil case is, I think, the best chance for a real resolution and victory for Trayvon's family. The difference between a civil case and what we just saw is that in a civil case, there's a lower burden of proof. All the government has, all the Martin's would have to prove is by preponderance of the evidence that there was an illegal shooting and, importantly, Mr. Zimmerman could be required to testify. He could be forced to take the stand and answer the question, why did you shoot Trayvon? What about all these lies and inconsistencies that you told the police?

MARTIN: But hasn't the court already rendered a question of whether it was a legal shooting? I mean, it was a legal shooting under the criminal statute, which was that the jury, which is the finder of fact, found that he acted in self-defense.

So I mean, I understand that people draw the analogy to the O.J. Simpson trial, where he was acquitted of criminal charges but was found civilly responsible. What is the standard? What do they have to prove in that case?

BUTLER: So if it's a civil case, there would still be an issue about reasonable doubt, but again, the standard would be different. So these jurors, when we hear from them, they may say we think probably, probably that Zimmerman broke the law. But probably isn't good enough in a criminal case.

It's got to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. That's like 95 percent. In a civil case, preponderance of the evidence, 51 percent. If they say, we think he probably illegally shot him in a civil case, that would be good enough for a victory for Trayvon.

MARTIN: Well, you asked, you said earlier and you've said repeatedly you felt that manslaughter would have been an appropriate charge here. What is the difference between manslaughter and murder?

BUTLER: So in a murder case - and again, just like if there is a hate crimes federal civil rights prosecution, you have to prove some kind of hate, animist racism. You know, as we all are recognizing, Michel, racism nowadays, it doesn't look like the old-school kind of Ku Klux Klan version.

If George Zimmermann is a racist - there's a big question about whether he is - he's certainly not that old-school kind. Unfortunately, that's the evidence that's required in court for both the murder prosecution, that he hated Trayvon, or for a civil rights hate crime prosecution. So that's the problem. Manslaughter, all that would've had to prove is reckless, that he shot Mr. Martin without thinking about the consequences.

MARTIN: Finally, Paul Butler, as I mentioned, you're a professor. Are you going to talk about this? What are you going to talk about?

BUTLER: Yeah, I'm going to talk about this weird dichotomy I'm feeling between my role as a lawyer, where I totally understand and respect the jury's verdict, and my experience as an African-American man who's been the victim of racial profiling.

I'm very concerned about the message that a not guilty verdict sends. Apparently, in Florida if you get into a fight with an unarmed black man who you falsely believe is a criminal, you're allowed to kill him. That's not a crime, and that's a problem.

MARTIN: Jenee, what about you? What do you think you'll be writing about or thinking about as this goes forward?

DESMOND-HARRIS: Well, what's not on my mind is that this is just a great reminder that I think a lot of us could use about the fact that our legal system guarantees procedural justice. It doesn't guarantee racial or social justice. Everyone gets a trial, and what you're entitled to is to have the trial go according to certain rules and according to our laws. No one actually, no one should actually expect that there is an outcome in one of these cases that's guaranteed to represent fairness or advance racial justice.

Unfortunately, the legal system has some serious limitations in those areas. And I think this is a great reminder of that. And also, the activism around it is a reminder about the alternatives and other places we can go to try to remedy some of these issues.

MARTIN: I do want to be mindful of the fact that not everyone agrees with you. In fact, there is a center of gravity that says that this thing has been completely overblown, this is essentially a local matter, should have been resolved without the attention of any number of people, including President Obama. So Jenee, what would you say to those individuals?

DESMOND-HARRIS: Well, I mean, I think the whole narrative of what's happened in the country really flies in the face of that. I think that's pretty absurd when you consider just the evidence of the attention that this case has attracted. People are going to remember this, and I don't think anyone will ever argue that it should have been simply swept under the rug.

MARTIN: Jenee Desmond-Harris is a staff writer for The Root. She is also an attorney. She trained at Harvard Law School. Paul Butler teaches criminal and race relations law at Georgetown Law. He's also a former federal prosecutor. They were both here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

BUTLER: Always a pleasure, Michel.

DESMOND-HARRIS: Thanks.

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