George Zimmerman: Not Guilty, But Not Innocent Either

A jury in Florida has found George Zimmerman not guilty in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford (about 27 miles from Orlando), followed and subsequently fatally shot the teenager on the night of February 26, 2012.

Finding no evidence to the contrary, police initially accepted Zimmerman’s claim that he shot Martin in self-defense. However, the decision not to charge Zimmerman led to widespread outrage, especially given the circumstances of the case (Trayvon was an unarmed black teen in a gated community). Prosecutors eventually charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder.

For many in the black community, there is no question of George Zimmerman’s guilt. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton issued a statement calling the verdict “a slap in the face to the American people.” One black resident of Sanford reacted to the verdict by proclaiming that “[Zimmerman] killed somebody and got away with murder”–no doubt a widely held sentiment.

Zimmerman’s supporters, on the other hand, are certain that he acted in self-defense. For them, the not guilty verdict is an affirmation of their belief that Trayvon, and not George Zimmerman, was the aggressor that night. Defense attorney Mark O’Mara said that he was “ecstatic” after the verdict, proclaiming that Zimmerman “was never guilty of anything except protecting himself in self-defense.”

But how can anyone be so confident in Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence? We know that Zimmerman fired the shot that killed Trayvon, but we don’t know what happened in the moments leading up to the shooting. (Who confronted who? Who was on top of who?) The only person who can answer those questions refused to take the stand at his own murder trial.

One thing is clear: On the night of February 26th, 2012, George Zimmerman took it upon himself to play police officer and ended up taking a young man’s life. If anything, Zimmerman is morally responsible for Trayvon’s death. After all, it was Zimmerman’s suspicion–and Zimmerman’s gun–that killed Trayvon.

Given that Zimmerman admits to following the teenager and eventually killing him, and knowing that Trayvon was unarmed and not doing anything wrong, we certainly have enough information on which to condemn Zimmerman’s actions.

Trayvon Martin did not deserve to die. Since Zimmerman initiated the sequence of events that led to this tragedy, he bears ultimate moral responsibility for it. But moral responsibility is not the same thing as legal culpability.

In order to convict an individual of murder (or even a lesser crime such as manslaughter), the State must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

In this case, the State of Florida failed to prove that Zimmerman did not kill Trayvon in self-defense. In criminal cases such as these, the burden of proof always falls on the State, as it should. (While such a system means that guilty people may sometimes go free, it is necessary to protect the rights of the innocent.)

George Zimmerman may have been acquitted in a court of law, but that doesn’t mean he’s off the hook (remember O.J.?). For the rest of his life, he will have to live with the fact that he killed an unarmed 17-year-old boy (regardless of who ended up on top of who). Everywhere he goes, people will point at him and remark, “Hey, isn’t that the guy who killed that black kid in Florida.”

George Zimmerman could save a bus full of children and he would still be known firstly as “Trayvon Martin’s killer.” Now, could anybody honestly tell me that they would trade places with George Zimmerman right now?

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