Skip to main content

What really went wrong in the Zimmerman trial

By Walter Olson, Special to CNN
July 19, 2013 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, is joined by her son Jahvaris Fulton as she speaks to the crowd during a rally in New York City, Saturday, July 20. A jury in Florida acquitted Zimmerman of all charges related to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/27/justice/gallery/zimmerman-trial/index.html'>View photos of key moments from the trial.</a> Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, is joined by her son Jahvaris Fulton as she speaks to the crowd during a rally in New York City, Saturday, July 20. A jury in Florida acquitted Zimmerman of all charges related to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. View photos of key moments from the trial.
HIDE CAPTION
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Photos: Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Walter Olson: Those upset with verdict call for giving new powers to prosecutors
  • Olson: The unintended effect of this would be that more black men would end up in prisons
  • He says what really went wrong in the Zimmerman case is the prosecution's misdeeds
  • Olson: To help minorities in the justice system, don't look to taking away defendants' rights

Editor's note: Walter Olson is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute's Center for Constitutional Studies.

(CNN) -- People upset at George Zimmerman's acquittal are calling for awarding various new powers to prosecutors at the expense of protections for criminal defendants.

Maybe this would make it easier to hang a rap on some future Zimmerman. But it also would have an effect that its backers probably don't intend: increasing the number of persons convicted and sent to prison. As part of that effect, more young black men -- as well as more members of other groups -- will end up behind bars.

On Twitter and Facebook, many people have expressed frustration with the conviction standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt," which the state of Florida was unable to overcome. Couldn't we lower it? Others hoped prosecutors could appeal the verdict (right now, they can't; an acquittal is final).

Walter Olson
Walter Olson

To change either of these basic features of our judicial system, we'd have to overturn the Supreme Court's settled view of the Bill of Rights or amend the U.S. Constitution itself. And what would happen if we did? Convictions would rise, and the nation's outlandishly large and disproportionately black prison rolls would swell yet further.

Or consider the popular notion of retrying Zimmerman on federal charges.

Under our Constitution, even serious crimes such as murder are traditionally offenses under state law only.

In a controversial 1959 opinion, Bartkus v. Illinois, the Supreme Court ruled that consecutive prosecutions under state and federal law do not violate the Constitution's ban on double jeopardy. Interestingly, that was the view of the court's five more conservative justices. The dissenters, who warned eloquently of the dangers of letting government try people twice for the same conduct, were the four liberals: Earl Warren, William Douglas, Hugo Black and William Brennan.

Trayvon Martin's parents talk verdict
Trayvon's mom: Verdict was total shock

For many years thereafter, such prosecutions were a rare exception. Occasionally they were of national note, as when a Jim Crow authority would refuse to prosecute a white-on-black crime. Only with the Rodney King case in California in 1993 did anyone seriously propose giving prosecutors a second bite at the apple after a state prosecution pursued in good faith before an ordinary jury ended in an unpopular acquittal. If the floodgates now open, how long before we see federal enforcers begin to second-guess state-court acquittals in, say, drug cases?

Others call for narrowing self-defense rights, though the Zimmerman case wound up being tried under pretty much the same self-defense standard that prevails in the great majority of states. Florida's so-called "stand your ground" law, which did away with the "duty to retreat," was ignored by both prosecution and defense, and the jury appeared to accept Zimmerman's contention that retreat was not an option for him once the altercation began.

A key constituency seeking to roll back stand your ground in the Florida legislature is prosecutors, whose interests just might not be fully congruent with those of the people they prosecute.

Although critics insist that stand your ground leads to racially disparate effects, the Tampa Bay Times, a paper that has been highly critical of the law, concedes its in-depth investigation "found no obvious bias in how black defendants have been treated" under the law.

It also quoted Alfreda Coward, a black Fort Lauderdale lawyer "whose clients are mostly black men," as saying it had sometimes worked to the advantage of her clients facing charges over altercations. "Let's be clear," Coward told the paper, "this law was not designed for the protection of young black males, but it's benefiting them in certain cases."

If you're looking for things that really went wrong in the Zimmerman case and are part of wider patterns unfavorable toward minorities, try looking at the prosecution's misdeeds.

In particular, Florida State Attorney Angela Corey overcharged, going for second-degree murder when even manslaughter was shaky. That didn't cow Zimmerman, who had a sizable legal defense fund, but such tactics work every day in extracting plea-bargain surrenders from ordinary-Joe defendants who fear a worse verdict.

Corey's team also tried the case in the news media, made jury-inflaming assertions it couldn't back up with proof, and (according to a whistle-blowing employee, soon fired by Corey) even withheld evidence from the defense side, an ethical breach should it be proven.

A public stirred up to outrage over sins like those might come to realize that they're not a fluke of the Zimmerman case, but crop up regularly in the everyday criminal justice system, to the disfavor of minority (and nonminority) defendants.

When the emotional grip of the moment has relaxed, we may wonder how we ever imagined that the way to help minorities in the justice system was to take away criminal defendants' rights.

Follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Walter Olson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT