The Zimmerman pattern

This wasn’t the first time Zimmerman claimed “self-defense,” or the first time he was accused of a violent felony.

There’s less to the Zimmerman verdict than meets the eye. “Beyond reasonable doubt” is a tough standard to meet when the question is whether someone could reasonably have believed himself in mortal peril. Would the jury have decided otherwise if an armed black man accosted an unarmed white man in a white neighborhood? Possibly. But that doesn’t prove the verdict actually rendered was wrong. It probably wasn’t.

On the other hand, the demonization of the unarmed guy with the bullet hole in him and the valorization of the guy with the gun by the wingnuts and the racists are pretty hard to take. One fact I hadn’t been aware of until today – admittedly, I wasn’t paying very much attention to the case – is that Zimmerman had previously been charged with felony assault on a police officer (case dismissed when he agreed to enter alcohol treatment) and accused by a girlfriend of domestic violence (no charges filed, cross restraining orders granted).

None of that was admissible at trial. But a prosecutor thinking about whether to take a hard-to-win case might reasonably view Zimmerman’s self-defense story a shade more skeptically knowing that he’d used it before in the domestic-violence case and that he’d been aggressive enough to push a uniformed cop on duty. As Lady Bracknell might have remarked, to be accused of one violent felony may be regarded as a misfortune, but to be accused of two looks like … something else.

Perhaps, having killed and gotten away with it, Zimmerman’s blood-lust is now satisfied. Or perhaps, having been tried for murder, he will have learned his lesson. Let’s hope so.


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

63 thoughts on “The Zimmerman pattern”

  1. I wish there was something they do get him off from chasing after Martin despite the police telling him to stop, but there isn’t.

    Perhaps, having killed and gotten away with it, Zimmerman’s blood-lust is now satisfied. Or perhaps, having been tried for murder, he will have learned his lesson. Let’s hope so.

    Considering his history, I’m not counting on it. Give him 2-3 years, he’ll pop up again for threatening someone with a gun, or something else.

  2. Zimmerman’s entire adult life has been spent prowling the neighborhood and dialing 911 whenever he encountered someone with the temerity to have darker skin than he has. Dozens and dozens of times he called the police to report the crime of a pedestrian being black. He’s a sick, sick man, who has only had his warped world view reinforced by recent events. He was paranoid before; now every black man who sees him him will be tempted to attack first in self defense and he knows it. He is more likely to be dead or in prison for murder in very short order than he is to reform.

      1. Speaking of OJ, my money’s on him landing the Mark Fuhrmann gig on Fox.

  3. The demonizing of the unarmed guy was mostly a reaction to the beatification of the unarmed guy, IMO. “Even wayward youths shouldn’t end up dead” might have been a reasonable narrative, but it wasn’t the narrative most of the media settled on.

    1. What the flipping heck is “wayward” about walking home from the minimart with Skittles and iced tea?

      None of this posturing about how Martin was in some way scary, or hooded, or “wayward” makes any sense. He was stalked and killed by some grandiose would-be Dirty Harry, living out his fantasies from behind the wheel of his ridiculously large car as he lovingly fondled his killing machine. If Martin’s killer had carried an air horn, or pepper spray, both of them would still be alive. Or if the killer had just stayed in his car. Instead, he got the confrontation he wanted; when it failed to live up to one of his fantasies, he got to live out a different one. You gun worshipers would rather blame the supposed waywardness of his victim than confront the toll placed on our society by the cavalier attitudes you have towards the carrying and the use of your objects of veneration.

      1. Yup, that’s the narative, designed to fuel a crusade against Stand Your Ground and concealed carry laws. The narative reporting was warped to support.

        I’d say the big problem here is the media’s increasing reliance on naratives, instead of just relating what they know, even if it doesn’t advance their causes.

        1. Well, golly, you’re awfully convincing. Martin’s killer engineered a confrontation, and then – apparently legally – used a machine manufactured for the sole purpose of killing people, once that confrontation didn’t match his expectations. Technically, Stand Your Ground isn’t even at issue here, and it’s not clear concealed carry is, either. What your facts or your counter-narrative are, or what I’ve said that you feel is inaccurate, you haven’t troubled yourself to disclose.

          1. @warren terra–

            you might as well stop engaging with mr. bellmore now. iirc when the shooting was posted about here when it first happened it took pressure from multiple participants to get him to admit the (slight, in his opinion) possibility that the killing of trayvon martin might have been tragic. from the evidence of his comments here and at obsidian wings it very much appears as though mr. bellmore has no shame.

        2. The other side’s narrative isn’t any better, which emphasizes everything positive they could find on Zimmerman and suggests that Martin was a drug fiend who was out buying ingredients to make something known as “Lean”, “Sizzurp” or “Purple Drank”, a drug made of codeine, candy, and soft drink that it is alleged somehow transforms codeine into the equivalent of PCP or ketamine.

      2. “as he lovingly fondle his killing machine”? This does not strike me as a fair account penned by “an impartial spectator.” It strikes me as “purple prose.” Jaundiced. Biased.

        It’s Zimmerman’s contention that he was being straddled and beaten by the athletic Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman had grass stains on his back while Martin had grass stains on his knees. Pictures confirm that Zimmerman had a broken nose and lacerations on the back of his scalp. The only eye-witness (who was not GZ) described the situation as “an MMA-style ‘ground-and-pound’.”

        Trayvon was, in short, in the process of assaulting and perhaps killing Zimmerman. Would it have been a justifiable homicide (e.g., born of a fear of being stalked)? Maybe!

        But Zimmerman had his gun. So he is alive today, albeit under tragic circumstance.

        1. “Would it have been a justifiable homicide (e.g., born of a fear of being stalked)? Maybe!”

          Legally, maybe, but in the real world Martin would be facing the death penalty.

        2. The problem, I believe, is in the law. The jury did what they had to do, given the law.

          There was no reference to a separate “stand your ground” law, of course, it was simply self defense. (Which is essentially the same in all the important details.) But “simply” is disingenuous, unless you know the specific details of the Florida self defense statute. And those details are not hard to look up.

          A person has the right to meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony. So if I can provoke you into attacking me, and I then perceive that you are about to beat the crap out of me, I can pull out my trusty .357 and blow you away.

          It’s the Ken Rhodes off-my-enemy strategy: provoke him, let him get the upper hand, then cap him.

  4. For what it’s worth, Zimmerman claims the police officer was undercover, did not identify himself as an officer, and assaulted him first (of course he does). Apparently reporters have been unable to confirm this and we’re left with taking Z’s word for it, but for some reason the charges were reportedly reduced before they were dropped in lieu of the alcohol diversion program, outcomes which strike me as somewhat unlikely had he actually assaulted a uniformed officer.

    On the other hand, this is Florida we’re talking about. 😉

      1. Yeah, standing your ground is leaving, getting a gun, coming back and discharging the gun. Right.

        1. If you’re inside your own home, then yes. Now, you wouldn’t necessarily be allowed to shoot the person. But she *didn’t.*

          Florida’s legal system is clearly dysfunctional and racist.

          Mine probably is too though. Just not as bad. 🙁

  5. The 15 hours the jury needed before giving their verdict strongly suggests that if Zimmerman had been charged with a lesser offence like manslaughter, he might well have been convicted. SFIK English juries have quite a lot of flexibility in bringing in verdicts for lesser offences. Historically this was important in moderating the ferocious punishments for theft. Bleg to more informed readers: is this option now closed to American juries?

    1. He was charged with manslaughter (or at least the jury considered a manslaughter conviction as an option available to them). The self-defense argument immunized him against manslaughter as well as murder, apparently; the fact that he stalked a kid half his size and half his age while carrying a gun, and effectively engineered a confrontation, apparently didn’t matter.

      It may be relevant that most of what we know of the jury decision comes from an interview with “Juror B37”. By her own boast, she’s proudly ignorant (she gets all her news from the Today show, if you can believe it); she referred to all the participants in the affair, including the victim and the defendant, by their first names; she apparently rather adored Martin’s killer, thought he’d make a great neighbor; and she was contemptuous of the girl who was on the phone with Martin before he died, asserting that her inability to appear cultured and articulate in her third language meant she wasn’t a believable witness.

      Apparently, three of the jurors wanted to convict, at first – but they were worn down over time.

    2. Zimmerman was charged with second-degree (non-premeditated) murder, with a “lesser included offense” of (voluntary) manslaughter; the jury could have convicted him of either offense.

      1. IIRC, they actually threw in the lesser offense AFTER the defense had rested. Not that it made a difference in the end; This trial could have been conducted in the most self defense hostile jurisdiction in the country, (Ohio, I believe, where you can’t use a self defense argument without assuming the burden of proof in the trial.) and the outcome would likely have been the same. They never really had a case, which is why he wasn’t charged until political pressure got too intense to ignore.

        1. They found him with a smoking gun standing over the dead body of a teenager on a Skittles run whom he had stalked and killed. Those aspects of the case are incontrovertable; they aren’t disputed. If that doesn’t merit the need to defend his actions in court, what would?

          What kind of a bullet-ridden hell do you want us to live in? Would anyone dare to leave the house?

          1. And, AGAIN, you have to elide details. They found him standing there, badly beaten. In your world, perhaps, people get shot, and THEN beat up the people who did it to them, before expiring. Back in this universe, if you’ve got person A who has a broken nose and two black eyes, and person B down on the ground dead of a single gun shot wound, it’s because person B was beating on person A before being shot.

            The bullet ridden hell I want us to live in, is one where we don’t have to let somebody beat us to death in order to avoid being jailed.

          2. Then simply follow the police dispatcher’s instructions and stop stalking a neighborhood resident who has every right to be where he is.

            Talk about eliding the details…


          3. Brett, a human died. I understand that you cherish a fantasy world of knight-errants with six-guns, shooting baddies for impeccable reasons and then riding unquestioned into the sunset, possibly with the damsel they rescued riding behind them. Back here on this planet, if someone is found with a dead body and a smoking gun, injuries or not, they really ought to be asked a bunch of very serious questions and probably they should face a jury. No-one should shrug and say the deceased had it coming, just because there’s evidence at the scene consistent with a fight having happened. And, no, the scene you describe hardly proves the scenario you imagine. Someone else could have beaten up person A; person B could have beaten up person A a half-hour before the shooting; person A could have concocted their own injuries; or it could be as you conceive. That’s exactly why there should be an investigation, even when the dead person is a Black kid in a hoodie. And in our society, if there is uncertainty about a question of possible serious criminality the decision is made in a courtroom, not at the crime scene.

        2. Ditto Warren. We know from the phone call that the whole interaction was Zimmerman’s fault. He would be guilty in any normal place … except for racism. The only question is, of what? And I don’t think we’d disagree much on it, except maybe Brett.

          Gun ownership is a responsibility, not just a right (thanks sooooo much, J. Scalia). In *civilization,* you don’t get to go around just shooting whoever.

          1. Oh and btw, traditionally you would have a *greater* responsibility to withdraw if you could, when *you’re not even at home.* The streets do not belong to white men.

  6. Basically in Florida if you start a fight with someone and then start to lose it you can pull out your gun and shoot them dead, and it’s ok.

    If you’re not black.

    If Martin were a white kid, he’d be alive right now, playing x-box with his friends and eating Skittles. Maybe even toking on a joint.

    1. Ps I just love how Brett and the rest made this case about the victim’s guilt instead of the perpetrator’s. Never before in English legal history.

    2. Amen.

      Florida must be a pretty scary place these days.

      And as usual, I’m not sure our media are helping much. They ought to be explaining to readers that traditionally, equitable principles applied to self-defense claims. So if you had caused the situation, that would be held against your claim. We know what’s his name could have stayed in the car and nothing would have happened. He had no business at all confronting Martin. Under any sensible legal regime, he’d be in jail today, and guess what? That would be *better* for him, because he would be punished, and then it would be (mostly) over. Now he has a life sentence.

      1. Btw, I’m not an expert in this area of law. Your state may vary. I just love equity. I don’t know why we don’t ever talk about it anymore.

        1. Your preference for equity is more found in tort cases than criminal cases.

          Which is exactly why this case isn’t dead. Martin’s family has a strong case in civil court.

          1. This case is indeed going to be a focus of much public attention for some time to come.

            That is, at least until Kate Middleton has her baby.

  7. IANAL, but my reading of the law in Ta-Nahesi Coates’ column suggests that any person who chooses to kill Zimmerman would be required to be found not guilty, based on the reasonable assumption that Zimmerman is armed and willing to use deadly force. So any altercation with him would de facto be a life-or-death situation.

    It’s open season on the guy, as far as I can tell.

    1. Yes, confronting 3 guys who were actually stealing, pointing a gun at them, and ordering them to stay put is exactly the same as stalking one guy who has done nothing. Because niggers.

      1. Oh, I’m sorry, did I say “niggers”? That would be a mischaracterization of Brett’ views. It should read “because black culture.”

        1. Yep all white racism, definitely no cultural problems. Now please excuse me while I return to my normal off-internet activities such as slapping bitches, ruthlessly eliminating the snitches (and no I do not just mean members of my criminal enterprise (like an Italian mobster would) who are informing, I also mean taxpayers who witness me doing my thing and tell the truth when the police ask them), dropping bodies on my corners, banging my set, shooting cops, refusing to talk to the police, heading on down to the paycheck advance place so I can spend more money on my car, making fun of or actually attacking kids that do well in school (in groups preferably, because one on one confrontations are for bitches), approximately 15% of the population and 55% of the murders, recidivism as a way of life, trying to live every day like Ice Cube or Warren G, Dr. Dre n-word, AK n-word (apparently the n-word rhymes with the n-word) etc. etc. I am all for social justice, but if you don’t think that contemporary African American culture is bad news, you could use the sort of nuanced education only the LAUSD can provide.

          We all love to hate Brett, but if he is talking about problems with African American culture, he ain’t just a’ whistlin Dixie.

  8. There is such a mixture of wisdom and unwisdom in this post: it’s like a checkerboard!

    I will focus on the unwisdom.

    Florida’s State Attorney fired a state official for doing his job and retrieving pertinent (albeit not necessarily admissable at trial) evidence from Trayvon’s cell-phone. What was on the cell phone? Oh, you know, the usual: pictures of jewelry (Martin had been suspected of robbing in earlier months); pics of handgun; pics of underage nude females; pictures of cannabis. None of it means that Trayvon was guilty. Maybe it shouldn’t have been admitted into evidence before the jury. But firing the IT guy is prima facie evience that Florida was trying to paint a halo around Trayvon. The politicization of this story was a disaster. As Ta-Nahesi Coates points out in his piece, there are many far more unjustifiable shootings in USA all the time. (Google any of these three names, off the top: Jordan Davis, Sal Culosi, or Oscar Grant.)

    Zimmerman didn’t “kill and get away with it.” There’s going to be “wrongful death suit” and it’s exceedingly likely that Zimmerman will have to pay a substantial sum in civil damages.

    There is a substantial chance that our swashbuckling, mustachioed US Attorney General Eric Holder may charge him at the federal level with a Civil Rights violation, a criminal offense.

    Finally, there are also significant social sanctions. He’s too infamous to live a normal life. Spike Lee already tried to lynch him. In a sane world, the federal government would have some sort of “Witness Protection Program” style program for him.

    1. “In a sane world, the federal government would have some sort of “Witness Protection Program” style program for him.”

      Well, to be a witness he’d have to settle on a story.

      1. Hey, to be a witness he’d have to testify. Didn’t want to do that, did he?

        Maybe he thought the jury would find him a less-then-credible witness?

    2. Oh, hey, I clicked on your link, and guess what? The info the new right wing whistleblowing hero was neither pertinent nor admissible, and he then when around his bosses to reveal it to the defense. Which is a firing offense in any organization in the world. But, you know, enjoy your Wronged White Martyr.

  9. Well, the defendant has had a trial by a jury of twelve good men and true, which, as Col. Arbuthnot says in “Murder on the Orient Express,” is a sound system. Anyone who has served on a jury knows that the judge issues a set of detailed instructions about what the law says and what criteria the government must meet in order to convict. I have been wondering what those instructions were since the verdict was announced and it is very helpful to see them. I had suspected that “Stand your ground” was included in the instructions and it helps to see how the judge gave the jury that information.

    In other jurisdictions, juries also receive instructions regarding criteria for conviction in self-defense cases. The Coates essay does not compare commonly used jury instructions in other states to the case in Florida, so that it is not clear whether Florida is a typical or atypical state.

    In other states without “Stand your ground” laws, if you want to kill someone, can you go up to them in a public place, call their mother a name, let them take an enraged swing at you, and then shoot them, provided you retreat a couple of steps before firing? Would the jury instructions be the same as in the Zimmerman case, only without the stipulation that the defendant had no duty to retreat?

    The Coates essay sheds some much needed light on this case, but more light is needed.

    1. Ed, the defendant has a trial by a jury of six women. Assuming women are as sound as men, then that’s a half-sound system.

      On a more serious note…

      There was no invocation of “stand your ground” law, although if your read the Florida statutes you will be hard pressed to differentiate it from any old run-of-the-mill self defense, which is what this case was about. The judges instructions are available on-line. I’m sure Google will find them if you want to read them.

      The crux of the matter is that your next-to-last paragraph is approximately, but not precisely, correct in this case. Ignoring “stand your ground” and simply invoking self defense, the person who provokes the first action loses his self defense claim UNLESS, at the time of the retaliation, he is unable to retreat. So when Trayvon Martin allegedly had Zimmerman on the ground, Zimmerman no longer had the ability to retreat, and was thus allowed to off Martin.

      So in your proposed scenario (see my Ken Rhodes off-my-enemy strategy, above) it is not enough to provoke your enemy; you have to let him get the upper hand, so you cannot simply run away. THEN you can shoot him.

      1. I just gotta make sure that Vinnie Caparzo isn’t packing heat when I tell him what my donkey did to his sister at her request. And that I am standing only a couple of paces from the wall when I fire.

        One would think that this would be a fairly common strategem for eliminating enemies. Is there anyone out there who, like Sherlock Holmes, knows every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century, who knows of cases in which premeditated murder has been attempted under the cover of self-defense?

        1. For those who stand to inherit money from relatives who have retired to Florida, this would be a way to get it quicker. Like the teevee ad says: “It’s my money and I want it now!”

          1. You may still experience considerable inconvenience and you may incur significant legal expenses in the process of showing that you were in fear for your life when your blind grandmother came at you swinging her oxygen tank.

      2. So in your proposed scenario (see my Ken Rhodes off-my-enemy strategy, above) it is not enough to provoke your enemy; you have to let him get the upper hand, so you cannot simply run away. THEN you can shoot him.

        In the presence of Ken Rhodes, my demeanor is uniformly cordial and sanguine; my carriage cheerful, reverent, deferential; my response to every inquiry is prompt, pithy, and polite. For the time being, I remain unmurdered. Will update as events warrant.

  10. What is the world coming to? A 76 year old white man in Milwaukee shot a 13 year old black male whom he suspected of stealing from him, and a jury has just convicted him of first degree homicide! The kid was standing only about two feet away and might have posed a danger to the old man!

    Better be careful of the state you choose when deciding you want to shoot people, folks.

  11. What were the jury’s instructions? Isn’t there nuance in the stand your ground law? As far as I can tell, the case supposedly rests on whether Zimmerman was in fear of his life at the moment he shot Martin. Yet he clearly followed him with prejudice and malice. Martin could as easily been in fear of his own life, and yet, because he apparently then got the upper hand in the ensuing fight, the jury was able to find him acting in self-defense?

    1. Well, yes, there is nuance here: The fear for your life has to be at least somewhat based on the actual situation. That is to say, somebody has you down on the ground, and is beating you like a snare drum, fearing for your life is a rational basis for using lethal force on them. Somebody is walking behind you on the sidewalk, you might be somewhat fearful, but it’s not a rational basis for circling around, knocking him to the ground, and delivering a beating.

      I observe, not for the first time, that almost all of the discussion here is based on the prosecution’s scenario for what happened being true. But the prosecution lost the case. If it’s any consolation, I’m sure they would have won if the jury had only been exposed to mainstream news accounts, and hadn’t heard from the defense.

      1. = = = The fear for your life has to be at least somewhat based on the actual situation. = = =

        If a strange man chases you for half a mile in a large vehicle, gets out of the vehicle and stalks you on foot, and then runs up to you and confronts you, do you have somewhat legitimate fear for your life?


        1. Are you white or black? Is he white or black?

          Remember, whites have a right to seek out confrontations. Blacks don’t.

      2. “I observe, not for the first time, that almost all of the discussion here is based on the prosecution’s scenario for what happened being true. But the prosecution lost the case. If it’s any consolation, I’m sure they would have won if the jury had only been exposed to mainstream news accounts, and hadn’t heard from the defense.”

        Do you think that OJ is innocent, as well? That conclusion follows.

        1. I think that was a travesty, and that OJ was entitled to be treated as an innocent man thereafter, by the State, if nobody else, and not be subject to any rationalized violations of the double jepardy clause.

          1. “Do you think that OJ is innocent, as well? That conclusion follows.”

            Answer my question.

      3. Gotta disagree. If someone’s walking up behind you, you should definitely take *some* action. I know this from experience. Worst thing to do is ignore it.

        Plus, did Zimmerman go to a hospital? Was there an x-ray? I just remember hearing about photos. Real head injuries = trip to the ER.

        Hmm, you know that might explain some things…

Comments are closed.