Skip to main content

Should George Zimmerman be prosecuted?

By Eugene O'Donnell, Special to CNN
April 10, 2012 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Trayvon Martin supporters gather for a rally in his honor in Miami, Florida, on April 1.
Trayvon Martin supporters gather for a rally in his honor in Miami, Florida, on April 1.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eugene O'Donnell: Prosecutor needs to see if Zimmerman can be proven guilty
  • O'Donnell: No American should ever be prosecuted for a crime because of demands of crowds
  • He says prosecutors should vigorously pursue cases when justice demands it
  • O'Donnell: Major challenge for prosecution would be disproving Zimmerman's story

Editor's note: Eugene O'Donnell, a former New York City police officer and prosecutor, is a professor of law and police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

(CNN) -- George Zimmerman should only be prosecuted if, after an exhaustive investigation and an honest assessment of Florida's "stand your ground" law, special prosecutor Angela Corey concludes that there is a strong possibility of proving his guilt at trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin.

No American should ever be prosecuted for any crime as a consequence of the demands of a crowd, however large or vocal. This core principle of justice should stand regardless of the facts of a case or the radioactivity of a defendant. The justice system, fragile at best, is imperiled when prosecutorial decisions are tied to politics.

That said, good prosecutors should vigorously pursue cases when justice demands, even and maybe especially, when there are legal impediments. To do less, especially in a homicide case, is to create one of society's greatest miscarriages: the failure to hold accountable someone who acted culpably to take the life of another. The victim's life must be vindicated. Unfortunately, some prosecutors find themselves legally paralyzed by complex cases or shrink from pursuing matters that are not air tight.

Eugene O\'Donnell
Eugene O'Donnell

Unless there are clear legal red lights at the outset, successful prosecution frequently means stretching existing laws to achieve just ends. This means arguing at trial, and on appeal, that someone like Zimmerman can be brought to justice notwithstanding Florida's strong self defense law, or that the law should be construed less favorably to those who resort to deadly force.

In many self defense cases, the defendant can and does argue that the case should revolve around the uncertain moments of terror faced when he was confronted by an assailant, and that everyone in the court room is after-the-fact quarterbacking. The outcome of cases is determined by comparing the defendant's actions against state law. In no part of the country is a person threatened with death or serious physical injury required to suffer the first blow. A person can be found to have acted justifiably and reasonably for killing an unarmed person depending on the circumstances.

Opinion: Without protests, justice for Trayvon Martin can't be served

Florida authorizes deadly force "if the danger could be avoided only" by using it, but does not require a threatened person to try first to flee. In states with more restrictive self defense rules, deadly force is only an option if someone subjected to an attack can't escape with complete safety. In Florida and elsewhere, however, even if someone is an aggressor, he can regain the right to use self defense if he withdraws from the confrontation that he initiated.

Thus, a major challenge for the prosecution team in the Martin case may be the version of events that Zimmerman offers. In his account, the first face-to-face encounter with Trayvon Martin was occasioned when the teenager approached him and said, "You got a problem?" as Zimmerman was walking away.

It is imperative for the state to emphasize evidence that the defendant is not justified in his killing and discredit or explain all contradictory evidence. Witness statements will have to be parsed with great care, especially where they appear to support Zimmerman's version of events. The prosecution should also make sure that the defendant cannot introduce into the minds of the jurors something that is so off-putting that it gives rise to doubt about the propriety of the defendant's intentions and actions.

Even though the state has a lode of evidence, including vitally important 911 tapes that can offer a unique window into the motives of Zimmerman on that fateful night, it needs to be mindful of the narrative of fear that will be told by the defense counsel. (The Florida gated community has seen a number of crimes, Zimmerman was acting as a good citizen by being a neighborhood watch member, Martin is a powerfully built teenager, etc.) The defense will no doubt also exploit any lack of thoroughness in the police and forensic investigation as a bungled rush to judgment that can unsettle the minds of jurors who might otherwise be horrified by the shooting.

To convict Zimmerman, a jury would have to find that there is no reasonable view of the evidence that would justify his lethal actions. Of course, the state's star witness, Trayvon Martin, is unavailable to them.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eugene O'Donnell.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT