Saturday, April 14, 2012

He Didn't Say Boo

So George Zimmerman has been arrested and is facing second degree murder.  Like everyone else writing about the case, I don't know what happened*.  But considering what is known, and what likely can't be known, it sounds like a very hard case to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. (The probable cause affadavit isn't particularly impressive.)

The first investigation dropped all charages. Even if you believe it was flawed, that's quite a jump from no charge to second degree murder.  I've heard three explanations:

1)  The prosecution has a lot more than they're showing.
2)  Special prosecutor Angela Corey is making a political decision, giving the crowds marching against Zimmerman what they want.
3)  The prosecutor is overcharging, ironically, to throw the case.

The first point has been made by Corey.  The second point is widely believed--at least by people I know.  The third point is definitely a minority view.

Anyway, the question now is can Zimmerman get a fair trial.  When even the President has waded into the issue, it can be hard to find jurors without strong opinions.  Worse, some of the rhetoric surrounding the Trayvon Martin shooting has been heated enough that people may be fearful there'll be trouble following the verdict.  Will jurors be affected by this?

Zimmerman was arrested the same day the Academy had a fiftieth anniversary screening of To Kill A Mockingbird.  Host Tavis Smiley noted

What are the chances that this day in Florida George Zimmerman would be arrested? What are the chances that we sit in Beverly Hills on this day to see To Kill A Mockingbird, and these kinds of tensions still exist in our country?

To Kill A Mockingbird is the story of a man accused of a crime he didn't commit.  Lawyer Atticus Finch defends him, but the town is out for blood, and won't even consider any evidence that goes against their prejudices.  I guess the tension between the townfolk and Atticus parallel the tensions Smiley refers to. Or am I getting it wrong?

*I don't know what happened, but I can somewhat feel what Trayvon Martin went through.  Believe it or not, I've had neighborhood watch types follow me and call the cops on several occasions.  Every time it made me pretty angry, though luckily things never came to blows.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the prosecutor is overreaching hoping to get a plea for manslaughter.

1:10 AM, April 14, 2012  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

I don't know if you still remember your criminal law courses, but can you answer the following that I have been quite confused about? These are not Trayvon questions, but general law questions.

1) Suppose that the following facts are not in dispute: X shoots Y with a gun, intending to seriously injure him (suppose that he does not intend Y's death, but neither does he try to shoot in a way that will be injurious and not life-threatening). Y dies as a direct result of the gunshot. Is this felony murder (the underlying felony being battery), or is it simply murder? Or is it a lesser charge?

2) Regarding self-defense laws (not stand-your-ground laws). Is the burden on the defendent to prove he reasonably believed his life to be in danger? In other words, suppose that P killed Q and claims self-defense. The prosecutor claims P is simply a murderer. Neither side disputes that P intended to seriously harm or kill Q at that moment; the only issue is P's motivation. If a juror decides that he is totally unsure about P's claim of self-defense, is that juror obligated to vote guilty on the murder charge, since self-defense has not been proved?

3) Suppose that K attacks L in a bar-fight. Perhaps this began with an argument or swearing, but K is the one who first crossed the legal line by punching L, and they punched each other for a while. K admits he started the fight, and says that he expected this to be a normal bar fight in which both parties end up bloody and bruised, but nothing more serious. But then in the middle of the fight, L -- who does not reasonably fear for his life at this point -- becomes more aggressive and is actually trying to kill K. So K deliberately kills L. Can K claim self-defense on the murder charge, since he was defending his life? Or does the fact that K started the initial fight mean he can't claim self-defense when the fight escalates more than he had intended and expected?

8:43 PM, April 14, 2012  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I'm not always up on this stuff, and perhaps some of the other Guys who are lawyers can answer better. I certainly never practiced criminal law (unless you count my numerous appearances in traffic court). But first, let me cop out and say that much of this is statutory, and every state can define criminal law, for the most part, how it chooses. They don't even have to make murder illegal.

So for example one, it depends on how they define things, but it sounds like a felony murder. If he doesn't have specific intent to kill, it doesn't sound like regular murder, though it could be manslaughter.

For example two, it's my understanding that self defense is a classic affirmative defense. That is, you can accept the prosecution's claims (in part) but claim justification. It could still be statutory--the prosecution has to prove the elements of the crime defined by the state--but if it's not a necessary part of their case, then the defendant has to raise it. As for the standard of proof, it's not beyond a reasonable doubt. All the defendant has to do is show there's sufficient evidence to raise it, if that much. But I assume it's in the defense's best interest to make the best argument possible. Still, don't forget, it's the prosecutions burden to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, so just raising a justification defense might be enough to raise a reasonable doubt. So it seems to me if there's a claim of self-defense, and the juror can't decide if it's true or not, he should vote to acquit.

For example three, I don't believe committing a crime opens you up to others committing crimes against you with impunity. It would be exceedingly difficult to prove the mental states of the two people involved, and it's likely K's arguments wouldn't go over very well, but if it were believed, it sounds to me like he'd have a self-defense claim.

12:57 AM, April 15, 2012  

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