On a rainy night in February 2012 at a gated townhouse complex in Sanford, Florida, George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin stared at each other, and both perceived a threat. What followed is the focus of a murder trial that hinges on specific facts rather than the overarching, frequently misleading narratives that people tend to impose on this case.
According to one such narrative, the case is about race, which was the reason Zimmerman, a 29-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer, thought Martin, a black teenager, looked "real suspicious" and the reason Zimmerman was not initially arrested for shooting Martin. According to another, complementary narrative, the case is about Florida's broad definition of self-defense, which gave Zimmerman license to kill Martin. But it turns out neither of these factors is relevant to Zimmerman's guilt.
Zimmerman called the police about Martin before he got a good enough look to verify the 17-year-old's race, and there is little indication that he harbored animosity toward blacks. The most explicit reference to race during the trial was a prosecution witness's testimony that Martin, who was on the phone with her shortly before he died, referred to Zimmerman (who is Hispanic) as a "creepy-ass cracker."
Maybe a black man who killed a white teenager in similar circumstances would have been arrested sooner. But that counterfactual has no bearing on whether Zimmerman should be convicted.
The outrage triggered by the six-week delay in arresting Zimmerman probably encouraged special prosecutor Angela Corey to accuse him of second-degree murder rather than the more appropriate charge of manslaughter. That mistake has been apparent every day of the trial as the prosecution struggles to show that Zimmerman acted out of "ill will, hatred, spite, or an evil intent," as opposed to panic in the midst of a fight he was losing.
Zimmerman's account of that fight does not invoke the right to "stand your ground" or any other special feature of Florida's self-defense law. He claims Martin, who was understandably angry about being followed, threw the first punch and was on top of him, knocking his head against a concrete sidewalk, when Zimmerman's holstered gun became visible. Zimmerman says Martin seemed to be reaching for the gun, so he grabbed it first, fearing for his life, and shot Martin in the chest.
The evidence supporting this version of events, though by no means conclusive, is ample cause for reasonable doubt about Zimmerman's guilt. His injuries—including a bloody, possibly broken nose, plus bumps and lacerations on the back of his head—are consistent with his description of the fight. While two neighbors gave testimony suggesting that Zimmerman was on top of Martin before the gunshot, the neighbor who seems to have had the best view of the struggle said Martin was on top and appeared to be pummeling Zimmerman. There was also dueling testimony from friends and relatives who claimed to be sure they could hear either Martin or Zimmerman screaming in the background of a 911 call placed during the fight.
Zimmerman's account, which he gave freely without asking for a lawyer, has been essentially consistent over time. The main investigator on the case testified (for the prosecution!) that Zimmerman seemed to be telling the truth and was happy to hear the fight might have been captured on video, suggesting he thought such evidence would vindicate him.
It is still possible that Zimmerman erroneously believed the shooting was justified—that he feared for his life but not reasonably so, as required for a self-defense claim under Florida law. But instead of making that argument, the prosecution, which rested last week, has implausibly portrayed Zimmerman as an angry vigilante who maliciously tracked Martin down to deliver rough justice after mistaking him for a burglar.
Like the commentators who insist on viewing this case as a lesson about racism or an indictment of "stand your ground" laws, the prosecutors tell a compelling story that does not fit the facts very well.