How George Zimmerman won

The man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin is free. Did his Florida jury get it right?

George Zimmerman is a free man.
(Image credit: Joe Burbank-Pool/Getty Images)

On Saturday evening, after about 16 hours of deliberation, a jury of six women decided that George Zimmerman was not guilty of murder, or the lesser charge of manslaughter, for killing unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in February 2012.

Zimmerman's legal troubles aren't necessarily over — Martin's family can sue him for wrongful civil death and the Justice Department is weighing whether to charge him with violating Martin's civil rights. But many legal experts believe it's unlikely the federal government will take up the case. So for now, at least, Zimmerman is a free man, and he'll soon get his gun back — he has "even more reason" to carry it now, given the animosity toward him, says his lawyer, Mark O'Mara.

President Obama called Martin's killing a "tragedy" for Martin's family and for America, and asked everyone to "respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son." Passions are high, Obama added, "but we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken."

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The jury's verdict has inspired a raging debate across America. It's essentially "a Rorschach test for the American public," says Cord Jefferson at Gawker:

For conservatives, it's a triumph of permissive gun laws and a victory over the liberal media, which had been unfairly rooting for the dead kid all along. For liberals, it's a tragic and glaring example of the gaps that plague our criminal justice system. For people of color, it's a vivid reminder that we must always be deferential to white people, or face the very real chance of getting killed. [Gawker]

For legal scholars and many non-lawyer commentators, the verdict was not all that surprising. State prosecutors made some errors, legal analysts tell The New York Times: Several of the prosecution witnesses, including Martin's friend Rachel Jeantel and the medical examiner, Dr. Shiping Bao, seemed unprepared or unpolished, while defense witnesses like forensic pathologist Dr. Vincent Di Maio were polished and eloquent. "When Bao completely imploded, that was check," Miami defense lawyer Richard Sharpstein tells The Times. "When Di Maio testified, it was checkmate."

Regardless of mishaps, though, "prosecutors faced a difficult case — weak on evidence and long on outrage," says Lizette Alvarez in The New York Times. "Zimmerman had the power of self-defense laws on his side, and was helped by a spotty police investigation and prosecutorial missteps."

Consider it this way, says Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic: Zimmerman's story of his encounter with Martin isn't very plausible, but "the only real eyewitness to the death of Trayvon Martin was the man who killed him," and it's hard to prove his version wrong. "At no point did I think that the state proved second degree murder," or even "proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he acted recklessly."

The surprising takeaway, says Andrew Cohen at The Atlantic, "is that you can go looking for trouble in Florida, with a gun and a great deal of racial bias, and you can find that trouble, and you can act upon that trouble in a way that leaves a young man dead, and none of it guarantees that you will be convicted of a crime." Florida has "outlandishly broad self-defense laws," Cohen says. "This verdict would not have occurred in every state. It might not even have occurred in any other state."

That's the genius of America's federal system of government, says Rick Moran at American Thinker. "Individual states are allowed to define things like self-defense according to local community standards," so Florida's laws are bound to be closer to those in Texas and Louisiana than self-defense standards in New York or Boston.

"I'm pretty sure if the Zimmerman-Martin incident had occurred in Illinois, a good prosecutor would have convicted George Zimmerman of manslaughter," Moran says. But it didn't. Given the different cultural standards across America, lots of people were going to be unhappy with the outcome, whatever the verdict. But this happened in Florida, and "we are left with a decision by a jury of Mr. Zimmerman's peers viewing the evidence and testimony through local eyes, and with local sensibilities."

You can see "the box the jurors might have felt they were in," though, says Emily Bazelon at Slate. "Even if they didn't like George Zimmerman — even if they believed only part of what he told the police — they didn't have a charge under Florida law that was a clear fit for what he did that night." That's one reason "it feels wrong, this verdict of not guilty" — he clearly killed an unarmed 17-year-old. But you can't blame Zimmerman for Florida's terrible self-defense laws, says Bazelon. In the end, "what matters most is that Zimmerman was charged with Martin's killing, even if he wasn't convicted."

The state was late to indict him, yes, and acted only after a sorry spell of botched police work that may have affected the evidence presented at trial. But Florida did try to hold George Zimmerman liable for Trayvon Martin's death. Martin's family and all his supporters get most of the credit.... They did fight, and their battle meant something — meant a great deal — to so many parents of black boys in hoodies, and to the rest of the country, too.... No ill-conceived law, and no verdict, can take that away. [Slate]

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.