The acquittal of George Zimmerman has predictably generated protests across the land.
What it hasn’t produced, however, is a refutation of the overwhelming consensus among legal analysts that the six-woman jury decided the case correctly.
Simply put, too many prosecution witnesses sounded like defense witnesses as the state of Florida tried Mr. Zimmerman for second-degree murder in the Feb. 26, 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Even after the prosecution succeeded, belatedly, in adding manslaughter as an option for the jury, the self-defense argument prevailed.
That doesn’t mean Mr. Zimmerman, who was armed, should have followed Trayvon Martin, who was not. After all, a police dispatcher had told Mr. Zimmerman not to do so.
So how could a gun-carrying neighborhood watch captain who ignored police advice kill an unarmed teen in a gated community in Sanford, Fla., and not be convicted of a crime?
Despite outcry to the contrary, the answer is not because Mr. Zimmerman is white (actually, he’s Hispanic) and Trayvon Martin was black.
It’s because Mr. Zimmerman could persuasively claim self-defense. His attorneys told the jury that the youth pounded their client’s head against a concrete sidewalk. Mr. Zimmerman’s injuries were consistent with that account. The prosecution failed to prove that version was wrong.
Thus, the legal standard to prove Mr. Zimmerman guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” for second-degree murder or manslaughter was not met.
Last year, the local district attorney in Sanford recognized that self-defense obstacle to a conviction and didn’t charge Mr. Zimmerman. But the state of Florida, under intense pressure amid public outrage over the racially sensitive case, did eventually charge — or, as many legal experts have lamented — “over-charge” him.
On today’s Commentary page, Debra Gammons, a Charleston attorney, rightly cites self-defense as the decisive factor in the trial. She also fairly decries some reckless media efforts to make this story all about race.
And The New York Times did identify Mr. Zimmerman as a “white Hispanic” in a blatant effort to frame this story as a white-on-black killing.
And last year, President Barack Obama, moments after saying he shouldn’t comment on the case, did just that with this emotionally loaded remark: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
The president struck a more responsible tone on Sunday, issuing a statement that included this plea for restraint:
“I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.”
Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday that the Justice Department “will continue to act in a manner that is consistent with the facts and the law” as it considers whether to file federal civil rights or hate crimes charges against Mr. Zimmerman.
But unlike the Los Angeles police officers convicted two decades ago on civil rights charges in the beating of Rodney King, Mr. Zimmerman is a private citizen — not an agent of government. And a hate-crime conviction would require showing that Mr. Zimmerman had the “requisite state of mind” to harm Mr. Martin due to animus about his race.
The Florida prosecutors tried, and failed, to make that race-based case against Mr. Zimmerman.
Regardless of how you judged Saturday night’s verdict, though, this Sunday observation from the president was grimly accurate: “The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy.”
And minimizing the risks of similar tragedies should be a national goal.
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