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
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT