Many are appalled by the verdict delivered in the trial of George Zimmerman. A lot of the complaints with the verdict stem from emotion—no one wants to see a teenager killed and the killer get away with it. Others base their complaints on racism and racial profiling. And lastly, some worry that the legal system failed to do its job, which is to uphold justice. I will base my complaint on the latter concern and suggest why Zimmerman is guilty of voluntary manslaughter.
Second-degree murder was a stretch. Even though George Zimmerman could have been guilty of second-degree murder, the prosecution was unable to prove it without a reasonable doubt. Unfortunately, there were too many missing pieces to seal a second-degree murder charge. However, there was sufficient evidence to convict Zimmerman of being guilty of manslaughter. Some may say that it was involuntary manslaughter, but there is a reason to think that it was voluntary. Before presenting that reason, let’s consider the charge of manslaughter.
George Zimmerman was instructed by the police not to pursue Martin. Ignoring the instructions of experts in law enforcement, he exited his car and engaged Martin. By exiting his car, Zimmerman had the intention to engage Martin. It is reasonable to think that Zimmerman had the confidence to leave his vehicle because he was armed. Had he not been armed, would he have left his car? Having a firearm most likely assured Zimmerman that he would be safe and that he could also intimidate Martin.
By engaging Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman was the initiator of conflict. By initiating the conflict, it seems difficult to claim that someone is in the defense when they make the first offensive move. Moreover, the legal defense attempted to sidestep the initiation issue and placed emphasis on the “fear for one’s own life” as justification for Zimmerman’s action. But Trayvon Martin, who assaulted Zimmerman, also deserves the same justification. It is reasonable for a teenager who is being followed at nighttime to be frightened and may end up taking means to protect one’s self, especially when they are not the one who initiated the conflict in the first place!
The jury (and many citizens around the nation) did not see it that way. They only saw a hoodlum who approached a “stand-up” citizen and began assaulting him. Fine. Look at it either way. But even if Martin is guilty of assault, it does not change the fact that George Zimmerman is guilty of voluntary manslaughter. This is so because of the disproportionate force applied by Zimmerman.
In defending one’s self, one is able to protect their well-being by using force to prevent individuals from affecting their well-being. But self-defense only goes so far. When one goes beyond protecting their well-being, then their action is classified as excessive force. Zimmerman shot an unarmed teenager who was striking him with his fists. An appropriate defensive move would be to strike Martin with a fist or the firearm, if need be, and subdue him by aiming the gun toward Martin. If the latter action is sufficient to defend one’s self, then it is unnecessary to fire the weapon. Because it was unnecessary, firing the weapon, then, would classify as excessive force. That is what George Zimmerman did. Thus, he did not just protect himself. He applied excessive force. If we think counterfactually, we can arrive at an appropriate action. Had Zimmerman struck Martin with his fists or firearm and aimed the gun toward Martin, Martin most likely would have given up. If the counterfactual conditional is true, then firing the weapon was unnecessary. The alternative of striking Martin with the gun and aiming it toward him was within Zimmerman’s ability. And this is what the prosecution emphasized. So Zimmerman could have done otherwise.
But many appeal to the flood of emotion. As alleged, Zimmerman was in a fearful state of mind where he feared for his life. Such state would prevent him from considering the alternative, especially in a real time situation. This is an important point, but the law favors reason over emotion. Accordingly, Zimmerman has an excuse but not a justification. An excuse admits to wrongdoing whereas justification does not. Zimmerman was in the wrong, but his state of mind is the mitigating factor. That is why he is guilty of manslaughter rather than second-degree murder. But he surely was not justified due to applying excessive force and therefore he is guilty of a crime. His guilt needed to have been followed by a conviction of voluntary manslaughter.
Ok, many are probably thinking why am I claiming ‘voluntary’ over ‘involuntary’. There is reason to think that Zimmerman committed voluntary manslaughter. The way to convince one is through the legal notion of ‘oblique intention’. The legal concept entails that when one could have foreseen possible negative consequences and continues to act, she has intentionally acted. Zimmerman could have foreseen the possible consequences of firing a firearm toward another—mainly, death—and yet continued to act. It’s possible that one does not die from a gunshot. But it is possible that one will die from a gunshot and this is common knowledge. We also have a long history of observations to confirm that many have died from gunshot wounds. Because Zimmerman was aware of the foreseen consequence, he acted intentionally. An intentional act requires the willingness of an agent. If an agent wills an act, then she voluntarily chooses that act. Thus, Zimmerman voluntarily killed Trayvon Martin and is therefore guilty of voluntary manslaughter.
The case had so much baggage surrounding it, which may have muddled the jury’s (and public’s) perception. And there are many legal questions to be asked in lieu of the verdict delivered. One question that I might raise is whether the “fear for one’s life” is a fundamental criterion in determining self-defense. The criterion is purely subjective and each person has a different threshold for when fear kicks in. Maybe a child is about to throw a ball at my face and I fear that it will break my nose. I worry that I might bleed to death if my nose is broken. Am I justified in kicking the kid in the face to protect myself because I am fearful that I might die? Probably not. This example is absurd, but the ruling in Florida opens the legal system up to a slippery slope if so much emphasis is placed on the criterion of “fearing for one’s life” with regard to self-defense.
In considering the Zimmerman case, I imagine that he was fearful, but given the injuries sustained, he could have left the situation without killing Trayvon Martin. Realistically, the defense used the criterion of “fearing for one’s life” as their only hope and exploited it. And the case became focused on that criterion. But as I have said above, it is subjective and every person’s threshold differs. Observations will also differ when third-parties compare threatening situations. So although it is a relevant criterion, it should not be the only one. I will leave you with a comparison to make to show how we judge whether one is in fear of their life.
Which one do you think was in a more fearful state during their attack?