Commentary: In Defense of George Zimmerman — and the Right to a Defense

Trayvon Martin's killer has every right to a vigorous defense. But so, too, should every other defendant who faces trial.

Posted: 07/08/2013 03:11 PM EDT
Keith Boykin, George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin

As the George Zimmerman trial moves from the prosecution phase to the defense phase this week, people are starting to make up their minds about what happened on that February 2012 night. But just as importantly, we're also starting to see why the presence or absence of well-trained lawyers often determines the outcome of a criminal proceeding.

In two weeks of presenting its case, the prosecution put 36 witnesses on the stand and introduced 200 pieces of evidence to prove Zimmerman was guilty of second-degree murder. The state argued that Zimmerman's self-defense story doesn't add up and made several important points during its case, six of which I think are worth noting here.

1. Trayvon Martin was only 5'11, 158 pounds. Despite a year of public misinformation suggesting that Trayvon was a 6'2" hulking giant who beat Zimmerman to a pulp with his bare hands, it turns out he was a skinny, average-sized 17-year-old kid who was 36 pounds lighter than Zimmerman's own weight at the time of 194 pounds. This, to me, is one of the most damning pieces of evidence for the state.

2. No injuries to Martin's hands. The defense claims Trayvon Martin pummeled Zimmerman repeatedly with his fists, but the state showed there were no injuries on Trayvon’s right hand, even though he was right-handed. Also, there were only minor abrasions on his left hand, which the medical examiner said could have occurred before the incident. It's difficult to imagine Trayvon repeatedly punching Zimmerman, as the defense claims, without any real effect on his hands.

3. No Zimmerman blood or DNA on Trayvon Martin's hand. The defense claims Trayvon held Zimmerman's mouth and bloody nose while Zimmerman was pinned down underneath him. The state, however, showed that none of Zimmerman's DNA or blood was found on Trayvon’s hands. Furthermore, the defense argument that Zimmerman's voice was heard calling for help in the background of a 911 call seems difficult to believe if Trayvon was covering his mouth at or around that time.

4. No Martin DNA on Zimmerman's gun. The defense claims Trayvon Martin grabbed or reached for Zimmerman's gun in a struggle on the grass, necessitating Zimmerman to shoot. But the absence of Martin's DNA on the gun undercuts that claim.

5. Zimmerman suffered no life-threatening injuries. On the night of the shooting, medical personnel found two cuts to the back of Zimmerman's head that measured 2 centimeters and 0.5 centimeters. Zimmerman did not need hospitalization, neither of his cuts required stitches, and the medical examiner described them as "insignificant."

6. Zimmerman knew about "Stand Your Ground" law. In an interview with Fox News's Sean Hannity, Zimmerman claimed he had never heard of the "Stand Your Ground" law before his case. But two different college professors told the jury last week that Zimmerman actually took criminal justice courses where the law was discussed in class. Furthermore, Zimmerman clearly had access to numerous family and friends in law enforcement and the judicial system who seemingly did know about the "Stand Your Ground" law.

These six facts alone might be enough to convince a jury in a different case, but it's not completely clear in this one. That's because Zimmerman is represented by a team of defense lawyers who have tried repeatedly to punch holes in the state's case.

His defense lawyers have questioned the integrity of the police department's evidence collection, whether rain might have tainted the evidence, whether the evidence was properly stored in the correct types of bag, whether the medical examiner was qualified to reach his conclusions, and just about any salient fact the prosecution tries to make in its case.

That's the job of a good defense attorney, and I'm not here to complain to about it. The problem is that most criminal defendants, especially poor people, don't usually get such a zealous defense from their state-appointed attorneys. And while some observers have complained about the police department's evidence collection, that same process has been used for decades to convict hundreds of thousands of defendants, a disproportionate percentage of whom are poor people of color, who do not enjoy the benefit of access to law enforcement friends and family to assist them. And that, you see, is the problem.

After all, this is America, and George Zimmerman has every right to a vigorous defense on his behalf. But so, too, should every other defendant. In a truly fair criminal justice system, life-or-death decisions should not depend on whether you can acquire or afford the best lawyers. But if you honestly believe Zimmerman's defense has established reasonable doubt to the jurors, then God knows lots of young Black men who have been wrongly convicted by the system deserve the same benefit of the doubt.  

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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