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SHAPIRO: The Zimmerman prosecutors’ overreach
Pursuing a baseless conviction is a disservice to justice
Question of the Day
A jury in the Trayvon Martin case acquitted George Zimmerman after 15 hours of deliberations, but the state should have dismissed its case before it was submitted to a jury, and outcries for federal prosecution are inappropriate under the circumstances.
The state of Florida failed to prove the defendant’s guilt during its case, and based on the standard of probable cause, dismissing the case would have been the right thing to do.
Now the Zimmerman case may be remembered as one of the most meritless and politically motivated prosecutions in criminal justice history — a desperate attempt by politicians to prove they were not racist by bowing to racial tensions sweeping the nation.
Still, misguided liberals refuse to respect the Florida verdict, and are instead calling for federal intervention from the Obama administration.
Sunday afternoon, the Associated Press reported that the Justice Department would “determine whether the evidence reveals a prosecutable violation of any of the very limited federal criminal civil rights statutes within our jurisdiction governing successive federal prosecution following a state trial.”
However, legal experts have conceded this would be extremely difficult because of the high threshold of evidence required.
Civil rights violations are typically reserved for abuse of power cases where officials fail to prosecute someone guilty or railroad an innocent person. But that wasn’t the case here. Mr. Zimmerman was in fact prosecuted, and found innocent.
Instead of pressuring the Justice Department to prosecute a private citizen for murder charges of which he has already been cleared, critics should consider what many Americans have already accepted: that there was never a valid criminal case to begin with.
Consider the evidence: A key witness called by the state who saw the confrontation between Mr. Zimmerman and Trayvon implied that Trayvon was actually the attacker. One police interrogator testified that the defendant did not appear to demonstrate ill will, hatred or spite toward the alleged victim, the elements required to secure a second-degree murder conviction. Once prosecutors realized they couldn’t prove any of those elements, they asked the judge if they could add the lesser manslaughter charge. Another detective testified that he found Mr. Zimmerman’s account credible.
Ironically, the prosecution’s case sounded a lot like a defense case.
Under Florida Bar Rule 3.8, prosecutors in a criminal case are required to “refrain from prosecuting a charge that the prosecutor knows is not supported by probable cause or make timely disclosure to the defense of all evidence or information known to the prosecutor that tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense .”
Despite this rule, when charges were originally filed, the state reportedly withheld material evidence that supported Mr. Zimmerman’s self-defense claims — photographs of his physical injuries. One day after closing arguments were finished, the state proved its vindictiveness by firing its information technology specialist after he testified about the withholding of evidence in open court.
Apparently in Florida, testifying to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is not acceptable when a state employee’s testimony exposes wrongdoing.
Florida’s special prosecutor Angela Corey said early on that it was her job was “to do justice for Trayvon Martin.”
She was wrong.
A prosecutor’s job is to do justice for everyone — including protecting the defendant’s constitutional rights and ensuring that witnesses can testify truthfully.
Perhaps Daily Beast columnist Mansfield Frazier tapped into what some Florida officials were really thinking when they filed charges and he wrote, “America can only dodge so many bullets, and a not-guilty verdict could easily turn the racial cold war into a very hot one.”
Mr. Frazier, who watched the Los Angeles riots first-hand, suggested that Mr. Zimmerman’s defense should broker a plea agreement to avoid racial riots.
Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz blasted both Ms. Corey and Mr. Frazier in the New York Daily News:
“As many see it, [Ms. Corey’s] additional job is to prevent riots of the sort that followed the acquittal of the policemen who beat Rodney King . Mansfield Frazier has suggested that it is the responsibility of the legal system to ‘avert a large-scale racial calamity.’ He has urged Zimmerman’s defense lawyer to become a savior by brokering a deal to plead his client guilty to a crime that ‘has him back on the streets within this decade.’ But it is not the role of a defense lawyer to save the world or the country. His job — his only job — is to get the best result of his client, by all legal and ethical means.
Mr. Dershowitz added: “Zimmerman’s lawyer is doing his job. It’s about time the prosecutor start doing hers.”
The state declined to take Mr. Dershowitz’ advice and instead filed baseless murder charges. Manslaughter charges were equally inappropriate since there was no evidence that Mr. Zimmerman acted without “any legal justification.” His physical injuries demonstrate that he was physically assaulted irrespective of whether or not he first approached Trayvon verbally. The right to self-defense is invoked after someone uses physical force or creates a substantial threat of loss of life — not mere words.
The state’s case proved only one thing beyond a reasonable doubt — that from the very beginning the state did not have a case.
The loss of Trayvon Martin’s young life is a tragedy. However, we may never know what actions led up to his killing, and it is the prosecutors’ burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. They didn’t even come close.
The state of Florida should have dismissed its charges against Mr. Zimmerman before submitting the case to a jury because prosecution should be based on evidence — not appeasement of racial tension.
Jeffrey Scott Shapiro is a investigative journalist and former prosecutor in Washington, D.C.
About the Author
Jeffrey Scott Shapiro is a nationally recognized investigative journalist and a former Washington, D.C., prosecutor. He is currently general counsel for MDB International, a D.C.-based international investigations firm, and a legal analyst for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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