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The defendant cannot be guilty of manslaughter by committing a merely negligent act or if the killing was either justifiable or excusable homicide:

Negligence: Each of us has a duty to act reasonably toward others. If there is a violation of that duty, without any conscious intention to harm, that violation is negligence.

Justifiable Homicide: The killing of a human being is justifiable homicide and lawful if necessarily done while resisting an attempt to murder or commit a felony upon the defendant, or to commit a felony in any dwelling house in which the defendant was at the time of the killing. § 782.02, Fla. Stat.

Excusable Homicide: The killing of a human being is excusable, and therefore lawful, under any one of the
following three circumstances:
1. When the killing is committed by accident and misfortune in doing any lawful act
by lawful means with usual ordinary caution and without any unlawful intent, or
2. When the killing occurs by accident and misfortune in the heat of passion, upon any
sudden and sufficient provocation, or
3. When the killing is committed by accident and misfortune resulting from a sudden
combat, if a dangerous weapon is not used and the killing is not done in a cruel or
unusual manner. § 782.03, Fla. Stat”

JUROR: I think he was frustrated. I think he was frustrated with the whole situation in the neighborhood, with the break-ins and the robberies. And they actually arrested somebody not that long ago. I — I mean, I would feel comfortable having George, but I think he’s learned a good lesson… He was frustrated, and things just got out of hand.

“…Federal law probably doesn’t apply, said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami. Unlike the police officers in the [Rodney] King case, Zimmerman wasn’t acting ‘under color of law.’ — AP

Many times the reaction to a scandal reveals more about society than does the actual crime perpetrated against its notion of civility. When it comes to the Trayvon Martin killing, there’s been a lot of misdirection from some corners — corners which are factually and overwhelmingly white — that attempt to trivialize what happened on the night of February 26, 2012, in Sanford, FL, to reduce it to an insignificant confrontation between two equal citizens thrown together through no fault of their own, like some sort of Greek tragedy. What about black-on-black on crime, these people often say? And black-on-white crime? How about war? Drones? Would that make you forget?

Black folks will not be forgetting what happened to Trayvon anytime soon, but those sorts of deflections aren’t aimed at African-Americans anyway. The reason the death of Martin continues to resonate — and the reason the verdict on George Zimmerman only inflamed and prolonged that resonance — is because the very nature of the incident forces white Americans to consider whether racism still exists, how deeply entrenched it remains in the best of men, and more importantly, how those men have succeeded in institutionalizing it.

The fact that this case incites such strong emotions is not because it’s sensationalized by the media — which it of course has been, because their profit centers know this discussion is a virulent one — but because it’s so personal. Trayvon Martin was not J.E. Chaney, the black Mississippian chain-whipped and then shot in 1964 for working to ensure voter registration, but like Chaney, he has a face. Just three weeks ago the Supreme Court rolled back the very regulations Chaney gave his life to install, ostensibly because the states involved had become colorblind. One of those states was Florida. The voting rights issue was easy to abstract; what happened to Martin was not. And when backed into an ideological corner, the last defense of the powerful is always denial.

The jury in the Zimmerman trial was given the above instructions when determining whether or not to charge the Neighborhood Watch organizer with manslaughter. The original charge leveled against him, which only came about at all after six weeks of intense pressure from community organizers and their publicists, was second-degree murder, which played to the notion that Zimmerman had announced his hatred for Martin before getting out of the car to follow him.

Yet no one saw the confrontation for long, or with much clarity; furthermore, there were conflicting stories on how it began. It therefore became impossible to meet Florida’s definition of Murder Two, which requires proof of “ill will, hatred, spite, or an evil intent.” Prosecutors couldn’t establish that based on Zimmerman’s 911 call; the defendant may have lumped Trayvon in with the other black men in hoodies who had been burglarizing his gated community, but he couldn’t reasonably be accused of killing him in the heat of the moment out of pure anger. This is what Zimmerman apologists mean when they say the system worked. And they’re right.

Likewise, it’s impossible to charge the defendant with a federal hate crime, which, along with a civil suit, are the next legal steps for those who want justice for Trayvon’s family. To do that, it would require proof that the 29-year-old insurance underwriter and criminal justice student had killed Martin because he was black, rather than merely racially profiling him as a criminal. No one wants to see an America in which the State determines what you’re thinking.

And yet, that’s just how Zimmerman got off on the lesser charge of manslaughter, Ironically, it was that very crime which the lead homicide investigator wanted to charge him with on the night of the shooting, but was dissuaded from doing by the Florida attorney’s office. That lesser charge fits the legal definition of shooting an unarmed person in the heart during a fistfight, but it was only considered at all because of one of Florida’s other weird loopholes, one which demands the consideration of a lesser charge if one side or other requests it.

The jury, then, was instructed to consider what was in Zimmerman’s head. Florida statutes only require the defendant to be reasonably frightened for his life in committing murder. There doesn’t need to be proof of any actual threat; the jury merely has to be able to empathize with the perceived threat. In this case, the six people who decided Zimmerman’s reasonableness were female. Five of the six were white. One was described by trial reporters as being black, or Hispanic, or both. And you could be forgiven for hearing one juror’s recount of the initial votes — three for acquittal, two for manslaughter, and one for murder — and assuming the non-white juror had the hardest time seeing Trayvon, armed only with two 17-year-old fists, as a lethal threat.

When the defendant walked away from the crime scene under his own power, he had suffered a swollen nose (not broken, as he had originally told the EMTs), a bloody abrasion on the tip of that nose, and two lacerations on the back of his head. (None of this fits the legal definition of a felony, which would have also allowed Zimmerman to kill; that would have required “great bodily harm, permanent disability, or permanent disfigurement.”) Moreover, the coroner’s report on Martin turned up none of Zimmerman’s DNA. And yet, the threat to him was deemed reasonable. Legal experts opined that the prosecution had “failed to humanize Trayvon,” as if walking alone and unarmed and minding your own business was somehow not human enough. 

Now that the Florida legal system has sided with the man who followed Trayvon and caused his death, the Zimmerman apologists have stopped trying to paint the victim as black enough to be suspect and switched to playing offense, moving from playing the race card themselves to denying there’s even one in the deck. But with the black population more of a political and economic force than ever before, it’s safe to say the issue’s not going away. Not until a rapidly diminishing white America — one that still controls much of the money, the power, the voting machines, and the legal system — starts to confront how it really thinks about its underclass. As J.E. Chaney no doubt realized while speeding frantically down Mississippi State Highway 19 on the night of June 22, 1964, it’s going to take a long, long time.