George Zimmerman: The Trial He Should Have Had

Years ago as a freelance writer, I made a specialty of covering trials involving racial justice and capital punishment in the South, as well as less political but more sensational defendants like serial killer Ted Bundy and Green Beret Capt. Jeffrey MacDonald. Ultimately, despite the excitement and high profile exposure in major newspapers and broadcast outlets, the beat wore me out emotionally, so I gravitated to writing about religion.

But recently I returned to the beat to report on the Trayvon Martin killing, in part because of the issues raised by the shooting, and also because the gated community where the killing took place, and the courthouse where George Zimmerman was tried, are just a short drive from where I live. I wrote about the rallies, marches and demonstrations in the immediate aftermath of the killing for various U.S. outlets, and in recent weeks reported from the courtroom for several days of pre-trial and trial sessions.

It is now clear to me that Zimmerman's prosecution for shooting the unarmed black teenager would have unfolded in a dramatically different way if a series of decisions, large and small, had been made. These choices, taken together, might have provided more psychological and emotional solace to the Martin family -- and the nation -- even if the same not guilty verdict resulted.

To begin with, State Attorney Angela Corey should have taken the case to a grand jury, rather than making the unilateral decision to charge the neighborhood watch volunteer with the unrealistic charge of second degree murder -- an observation made by many observers during and after the trial. Instead, Corey should have asked the panel to indict Zimmerman on the more provable charge of manslaughter.

That decision would have enabled the prosecution team to spend the intervening months leading up to the trial to develop a single, simple narrative, a coherent road map for jurors that incorporated the central elements of the manslaughter charge. That is, by leaving his truck that rainy February night, and disregarding the advice of a police dispatcher not to follow Martin, Zimmerman acted with "culpable negligence," in a manner that demonstrated a reckless disregard for human life.

Next, Corey should have chosen a less abrasive lead trial counsel than Bernie de la Rionda. Prosecutors also should have devoted that time better preparing their key witness Rachel Jeantel, who spoke with Trayvon on her cell phone in the moments before the fatal encounter with George Zimmerman, for the grueling ordeal she would face on the witness stand.

Before the trial, the state needed to demand a full jury panel of 12, rather than the six they had. Given that Seminole County is approximately ten per cent African American by population, that would have sharply increased the likelihood that the jury would have included at least one black member, increasing its credibility, regardless of the verdict. During the trial, prosecutors could have argued forcefully that it was Trayvon, in fear for his life while being on the way back from an innocent errand, who stood his ground and acted in self-defense.

With all this admitted hindsight, the odds would still have favored Zimmerman's acquittal, given the skewed way Florida's self-defense and stand your ground laws are written. But I believe that the appearance of justice for Trayvon Martin would have been better served with a broader ownership of the judicial process.