On Wednesday, George Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder by the state of Florida in the death of Trayvon Martin. The highly publicized and politicized case has caused a furious debate over everything from racial stereotyping to “Stand Your Ground” laws. Now that the case has formally hit the courts, here is some layman’s legalese to help explain the process from here on out.
Assuming no pre-trial settlement, which is unlikely due to heavy media attention, Zimmerman’s case will advance through pre-trial legal maneuvering and hit a Florida court room in the near future.
In order to secure a conviction for second-degree murder, the state will have to convince a jury that Zimmerman’s actions were “imminently dangerous to another and evincing a depraved mind regardless of human life.” Should the state succeed in securing a conviction, Zimmerman would face a minimum of 25 years in prison, with the potential for a life sentence.
Dan Markel, a law professor at Florida State University, told The New York Times that he was “very surprised” by the second-degree murder charge “in light of the evidence that seems to have been brought to the attention of the public so far.” Although the charge caught some by surprise, it is important to remember that nobody outside the prosecutor’s office has yet seen the evidence she based her decision on.
Generally, prosecutors will charge a suspect with the highest charge they believe they can get a conviction with. Lesser offenses in the hierarchy are generally understood to be included automatically by most jurisdictions. Prosecutors can and often will request that lesser included offenses be included in the jury instructions so that jurors have the opportunity to choose a lesser offense should they not be convinced of the top charge. This means that should the jury fail to convict on second-degree murder, they could still convict on a lesser charge such as manslaughter.
Lesser charges also give defendants the opportunity to “plead down,” accepting a lesser offense and lesser sentence to avoid the risk of a trial and being convicted of a greater offense. While the media attention may pressure the prosecutor to pursue a trial and not giving plea options, it is still a very real possibility (over 90% of criminal cases are settled via plea bargain).
In the immediate future, the respective attorneys will be preparing for one of the most important phases of the trial — jury selection. The selection will occur behind closed doors well before the arguments formally kick off and will inevitably be a cause of controversy due to the racial tensions inherent in this case.
While some may ask how Zimmerman could possibly get a fair trial considering the media coverage over the last month, the Supreme Court has held since the 19th century that simple exposure to media coverage concerning a certain case does not necessarily equate to bias or incurable prejudice. Courts assume that, barring some other showing of incurable prejudice or bias, an individual is capable of hearing the facts and deciding a case fairly, regardless of prior exposure to media coverage of the case. While the defense may request a change of venue in order to work with a jury pool that is less invested in the outcome of the case, the seating of a full jury should not be difficult, although it is certain to be extremely contentious.
Assuming the Zimmerman case advances as expected, we can safely assume that the media circus will follow it into the court room as this country’s next great legal drama. Even though this case will likely get docket priority due to the attention it has drawn, pre-trial motions and requests will still take a fair deal of time, so expect the pace of coverage to slow down as the legal system engages in its slow but methodical examination of the case. Hopefully, regardless of outcome, citizens will feel that the judicial process worked and gave both sides of the case a fair trial.