Law professors note what the media missed in Zimmerman trial

By John Masson
Michigan Law School Communications

A pair of Michigan Law professors recently joined a large segment of this year’s University of Michigan Law School class of Summer Starters to take a closer look, without the distorting lens of the news media, at the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin.

Professors Eve Brensike Primus and Beth Wilensky teamed up to dissect the controversial case during a brown-bag lunch. Brensike Primus was a public defender in Maryland before she came to Michigan Law, and Wilensky has been teaching about Florida’s quirky laws on self-defense since before Martin was shot to death during a struggle with Zimmerman in February of 2012.

Both said the acquittal was no surprise, especially based on some of the specific quirks in Florida law. And both agreed that whatever else it was, the case had nothing to do with so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws.

Assistant Dean for Student Affairs David Baum organized the lunch on short notice after a student approached him following the verdict and suggested the case might make a good topic.

Because the Summer Starters haven’t yet studied criminal law, Brensike Primus started the talk with an explanation of the several elements involved in a self-defense claim. Wilensky then added an explanation of the significance of several changes the Florida legislature enacted in 2005.

Among those changes, Wilensky said, was the elimination of the previous “duty to retreat” requirement, and, of special significance in the Trayvon Martin case, a grant of immunity that legally prevents police from “arresting, detaining in custody, and charging a person” who argues that he or she has killed someone in self-defense.

“This is weird for a number of reasons,” she said. “Nobody really knew, in 2005, what the legislature meant.”

So the question was litigated in Florida’s state court system over the next several years, and a process emerged by which someone claiming self-defense goes through a mini-trial — before a judge, not a jury —during which he or she must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that they acted in self-defense. (Interestingly, Zimmerman actually waived his hearing.)

Regardless, the immunity issue might account for the authorities’ decision not to arrest Zimmerman the night of the shooting, the professors said — a decision which helped lead the news media to cover the case much more intensely than it otherwise might have.

“Traditionally, if there’s a dead body, there’s an arrest,” Brensike Primus said, speaking of cases like this one, in which the identity of the shooter is not in dispute. “And when media focus on a case, all kinds of things get distorted.”

The bottom line for both professors: setting aside all other elements and tensions — race, media coverage, vigilantism — proving that Zimmerman committed a crime that night would be “very, very hard to say beyond a reasonable doubt.”

“I’m just not shocked in any way, shape, or form that this was not guilty,” Brensike Primus said.