Monday, July 1, 2013

The George Zimmerman Trial: What the Prosecution is Trying to Prove


While America continues to watch and debate the George Zimmerman trial, we thought it might be helpful to provide some legal context as to what is actually going on here. As you've probably heard by now, George Zimmerman has been charged with 2nd Degree Murder for the shooting death of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin.  Trayvon Martin was unarmed at the time of the shooting but George Zimmerman claims that he shot Martin in self defense.  So what does Florida criminal law say about all of this?  And what is the difference between 1st Degree Murder, 2nd Degree Murder, 3rd Degree Murder and Manslaughter in Florida?

We take a look after the jump:



1ST DEGREE MURDER PER THE FLORIDA CRIMINAL STATUTE:
Fla. Stat. § 782.04:
(1)(a) The unlawful killing of a human being:
1. When perpetrated from a premeditated design to effect the death of the person killed or any human being...is murder in the first degree and constitutes a capital felony, punishable as provided in s. 775.082.

1ST DEGREE MURDER IN PLAIN ENGLISH:
This is what is commonly known as "premeditated murder."  In other words, if you intend to kill someone, and you premeditate the killing, then that is 1st Degree Murder in Florida (assuming that you succeed in killing the person in question).  It requires two things: (A) that you specifically planned to kill a person, and (B) that you did, in fact, kill them.  In order to find premeditation, Florida law requires the prosecution to prove that the defendant's acts were calculated. "Calculation" is a heightened standard and "consists of a careful plan or prearranged design."  See Rogers v. State, 511 So. 2d 526, 533 (Fla. Supreme Ct. 1987) (holding that the murder of a store clerk during an attempted robbery was not "calculated" and thus did not fit the definition of premeditated murder under Florida law).  In Florida, there are only 2 possible penalties available for 1st Degree Murder: (i) the death penalty; or (ii) life in prison without the possibility of parole.

2ND DEGREE MURDER PER THE FLORIDA CRIMINAL STATUTE:
Fla. Stat. § 782.04:
(2) The unlawful killing of a human being, when perpetrated by any act imminently dangerous to another and evincing a depraved mind regardless of human life, although without any premeditated design to effect the death of any particular individual, is murder in the second degree and constitutes a felony of the first degree, punishable by imprisonment for a term of years not exceeding life or as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.

2ND DEGREE MURDER IN PLAIN ENGLISH:
This is what is commonly known as "depraved heart murder."  In lay terms, it means that you intended to commit an act that has a high probability of killing somebody, and then somebody did, in fact, die because of what you did.  In most states (including Florida) this usually encompasses just about any intentional act that results in somebody's death, including beating an individual in the head with a baseball bat, stabbing somebody in the stomach in a bar fight or shooting at somebody on the street with your gun.  In each of these scenarios, you did not necessarily intend to actually kill the person in question; you only intended to do harm to them.  Nevertheless, they wound up dead because of the harm that you intended.  So the key difference between 1st Degree Murder and 2nd Degree murder in Florida is that 1st Degree Murder requires premeditation to kill somebody whereas 2nd Degree Murder does not.  2nd Degree Murder is satisfied simply by two things: (i) an intent to engage in a dangerous act towards another person, and (ii) the person does, in fact, die from your dangerous act.  In Florida, the penalty for 2nd Degree Murder is a minimum of 16 years in prison which can be extended to life in prison and/or on probation if the judge sees fit.  Also, it should be noted that the penalty for 2nd Degree Murder in Florida is a minimum of 25 years in prison if the violator used a gun to commit the killing.

3RD DEGREE MURDER PER THE FLORIDA CRIMINAL STATUTE:
Fla. Stat. § 782.04:
(4) The unlawful killing of a human being, when perpetrated without any design to effect death, by a person engaged in the perpetration of, or in the attempt to perpetrate, any felony other than any:
(a) Trafficking offense prohibited by s. 893.135(1),
(b) Arson,
(c) Sexual battery,
(d) Robbery,
(e) Burglary,
(f) Kidnapping,
(g) Escape,
(h) Aggravated child abuse,
(i) Aggravated abuse of an elderly person or disabled adult,
(j) Aircraft piracy,
(k) Unlawful throwing, placing, or discharging of a destructive device or bomb,
(l) Unlawful distribution of any substance controlled under s. 893.03(1), cocaine as described in s. 893.03(2)(a)4., or opium or any synthetic or natural salt, compound, derivative, or preparation of opium by a person 18 years of age or older, when such drug is proven to be the proximate cause of the death of the user,
(m) Carjacking,
(n) Home-invasion robbery,
(o) Aggravated stalking,
(p) Murder of another human being,
(q) Aggravated fleeing or eluding with serious bodily injury or death,
(r) Resisting an officer with violence to his or her person, or
(s) Felony that is an act of terrorism or is in furtherance of an act of terrorism,
is murder in the third degree and constitutes a felony of the second degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.

3RD DEGREE MURDER IN PLAIN ENGLISH:
In Florida, 3rd Degree Murder is where you unintentionally kill a person while committing or attempting to commit any felony on the list up above.  This is commonly known as "felony murder" in most states.  The difference between 2nd Degree Murder and 3rd Degree murder is that 2nd Degree Murder requires that you intended to cause serious harm to a person through some "dangerous" act. 3rd Degree Murder, by contrast, does not necessarily require that you intended to seriously harm the person.  In fact, depending on the underlying felony, you may not have intended any harm towards the person in question whatsoever.  It simply requires that somebody died while you were trying to commit one of the felonies on the list.  If nobody had died, you would have simply been charged with the felony by itself.  However, when somebody dies during the commission of a felony, then the law imposes a higher penalty.  3rd Degree Murder in Florida carries a minimum penalty of 10 years in prison, with a maximum of up to 15 years.  In addition, a judge may impose up to 15 years of probation on top of the jail time.

MANSLAUGHTER PER THE FLORIDA CRIMINAL STATUTE:
Fla. Stat. § 782.07:

(1) The killing of a human being by the act, procurement, or culpable negligence of another, without lawful justification according to the provisions of chapter 776 and in cases in which such killing shall not be excusable homicide or murder, according to the provisions of this chapter, is manslaughter, a felony of the second degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.
(2) A person who causes the death of any elderly person or disabled adult by culpable negligence under s. 825.102(3) commits aggravated manslaughter of an elderly person or disabled adult, a felony of the first degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.
(3) A person who causes the death of any person under the age of 18 by culpable negligence under s. 827.03(2)(b) commits aggravated manslaughter of a child, a felony of the first degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.
(4) A person who causes the death, through culpable negligence, of an officer as defined in s. 943.10(14), a firefighter as defined in s. 112.191, an emergency medical technician as defined in s. 401.23, or a paramedic as defined in s. 401.23, while the officer, firefighter, emergency medical technician, or paramedic is performing duties that are within the course of his or her employment, commits aggravated manslaughter of an officer, a firefighter, an emergency medical technician, or a paramedic, a felony of the first degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.
MANSLAUGHTER IN PLAIN ENGLISH:
Manslaughter is basically Murder without the element of intent.  Somebody has been killed, and you did not mean to kill them, but, nevertheless, they are dead and so society demands that you be punished in some way.  It is different from 1st Degree Murder because in a Manslaughter scenario there is no premeditation to kill.  It is also different from 2nd Degree Murder because in a Manslaughter scenario there is no intent to engage in a dangerous act without regard for human life.  It is also different from 3rd Degree Murder because in a Manslaughter scenario there is no intent to engage in a felony.  In short, Manslaughter is an accidental death caused unintentionally.  For example, a common bar room fist fight involving no weapons which results in somebody's death would likely receive a Manslaughter charge because we don't expect people to die in a normal fist fight.  However, if a deadly weapon is introduced into that same scenario, then a charge of 2 Degree Murder is more appropriate because, under those circumstances, death becomes more probable. The penalty for Manslaughter in Florida is a minimum of 9 and a maximum of 15 years in prison.  In addition, the judge may impose up to 15 years of probation.

It should be noted that under Florida law Manslaughter is a "lesser included offense" within the charge of 2nd Degree Murder.  In other words, when the state charges somebody with 2nd Degree Murder, they are also simultaneously charging them with Manslaughter.  Thus, it is possible for somebody charged with 2nd Degree Murder to be acquitted on the 2nd Degree Murder charge but still be found guilty of Manslaughter.


WHAT DOES THE PROSECUTION NEED TO PROVE IN THIS CASE?
In order to convict George Zimmerman of 2nd Degree Murder, the prosecution will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that (A) George Zimmerman intended to engage in an act imminently dangerous to Trayvon Martin which demonstrates that Zimmerman acted with a depraved mind and without regard to human life; and (B) that Trayvon Martin did, in fact, die.  Obviously the second element is a no brainer.  It's the first element which is what this case is all about.  But what does "imminently dangerous", "depraved mind" and "without regard to human life" actually mean?  Let's look to the standard Florida jury instruction on 2nd Degree Murder for guidance:
An act is “imminently dangerous to another and demonstrating a depraved mind” if it is an act or series of acts that:

  1. a person of ordinary judgment would know is reasonably certain to kill or do serious bodily injury to another, and
  2. is done from ill will, hatred, spite, or an evil intent, and
  3. is of such a nature that the act itself indicates an indifference to human life.
The prosecution will need to prove all 3 elements in order to convict Zimmerman.  See Duckett v. State, 686 So.2d 662 (Fla. App. Ct. 1996).
The first element will, relatively speaking, be the easiest for the prosecution to prove because most people would agree that shooting somebody with a gun is reasonably certain to either kill or do serious bodily injury to the person who is shot.  Neither the prosecution or the defense will probably spend much time trying to prove or disprove this element as it is fairly straight forward.
The second element, by contrast, will likely pose the greatest challenge to the prosecution.  Proving intent is always a challenge in any criminal case because we do not yet possess the technology that would allow us to jump inside somebody's mind and know what they truly intended.  Thus, we have to use external evidence in order to show the jury what the defendant may have been thinking.  The prosecution will try to show Zimmerman's "ill will, hatred, spite, or evil intent" primarily through 2 theories: (1) by showing that Zimmerman was a racist who profiled Trayvon because he was Black; and/or (2) by showing that Zimmerman was the aggressor who chose to follow Trayvon after he was told not to.  [EDITOR'S NOTE: in order to prove this second point (Zimmerman as the aggressor), the prosecution relied heavily on Rachel Jeantel's testimony; many legal experts suspect that her testimony may have critically undermined this theory]
The third element will also pose a challenge to the prosecution because it is largely dependent upon the second element.  In other words, in order to convince the jury that Zimmerman acted with an indifference to human life, the prosecution will have to first show that he acted out of "ill will, hatred, spite or evil intent."  Proving Zimmerman's state of mind will be critical to the prosecution's case.

SELF DEFENSE:
It should also be noted that even if the prosecution can prove all 3 elements, it is still possible for Zimmerman's defense attorneys to raise "self defense" as a justification for 2nd Degree Murder.  Florida law allows its residents to use force (including deadly force) to defend themselves from somebody who they reasonably believe to be a threat so long as the force is proportionate to the threat.  However, Florida courts have held that self defense does not apply where deadly force is used against an individual who is walking away from the person claiming self defense.  See State v. Heckman, 993 So.2d 1004, 1006 (Fla. App. Ct. 2007) (finding that self defense did not apply where a home owner shot his would-be attacker after a heated argument as the man was leaving the home owner's garage and walking back toward his own vehicle to leave) Moreover, the Florida courts have also held that the self defense argument is not available to a person who provokes the encounter in the first place.  See Darling v. State, 81 So.3d 574, 579 (Fla. App. Ct. 2012) (holding that the "[j]ustification for using deadly force in self defense, which includes the "stand your ground" defense, does not apply to a person who provokes the attack.").  Therefore, if the jury believed Rachel Jeantel's testimony (Zimmerman as the aggressor), then that would tend to undercut Zimmerman's claim of self defense.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Zimmerman dropped the infamous "Stand Your Ground" defense for now but his attorneys reserved the right to reintroduce the defense in the future].

RECAP:
To recap, 1st Degree Murder requires premeditation which is not supported by the facts of this case due to the heightened "calculation" standard under Florida law. 2nd Degree Murder may or may not be supported by the facts of this case depending on whether the prosecution can show Zimmerman's intent to shoot Trayvon Martin was based on ill will, hatred, spite, or an evil intent in conjunction with an indifference to human life.  3rd Degree Murder (aka "Felony Murder") does not apply here because Zimmerman was not committing one of the above-mentioned felonies.  And Manslaughter -- which is a lesser included offense within 2nd Degree Murder -- may apply here if Zimmerman is acquitted of the 2nd Degree Murder charge and the jury finds that he recklessly killed Trayvon Martin.  Assuming that the prosecution can establish either 2nd Degree Murder or Manslaughter, Zimmerman may have a valid self defense argument.  However, his self defense argument may be undermined if the jury finds that he was the aggressor.

Thoughts?
blog comments powered by Disqus