This much we know. On the night of Feb. 26, 2012, George Zimmerman was in his car, running an errand, when he saw a young man walking inside his gated community.
Zimmerman thought the young man, Trayvon Martin, was acting suspiciously. There had been break-ins in the neighborhood in recent weeks. Being a conscientious neighborhood watchman, Zimmerman called police, and told them of his suspicions.
The dispatcher told Zimmerman to stay in his car, to not follow and confront the young man. He didn’t listen.
What really happened that night in Sanford, Fla., we will never know. What we do know is that George Zimmerman fired a single shot, killing Trayvon Martin, who was only 17.
We also know that Trayvon Martin was not murdered, nor was the incident a case of manslaughter, so sayeth a Florida jury, which acquitted Zimmerman of both charges last Saturday evening.
Do I have my own opinions about the case? Of course I do, and I suspect you do, too. We are allowed to have our own opinions, our own ideas, and to express them freely.
But they don’t matter. The American justice system has spoken, whether we agree with the verdict or not.
Demonstrators have taken to the streets of a number of U.S. cities in the wake of Saturday night’s verdict, and some of the protests have turned violent.
This is unacceptable. Peaceful protest is ingrained in the fabric of America. This nation is a child of protest. And non-violent expressions of displeasure with the verdict are perfectly welcome. But protesting violence with violence is compounding one evil with another.
The Sanford police were initially not going to charge Zimmerman, since it was their opinion the killing was justified under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law allowing ordinary citizens to use deadly force if they are in fear of their own lives.
Under pressure, the Sanford police chief was fired, a special prosecutor was appointed by Florida’s governor and Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder.
The wheels of justice ground slowly, but steadily, and Zimmerman’s trial began last month.
Finally, after weeks of testimony and hours of deliberation, Zimmerman was found not guilty.
Immediately, the outcry began, bringing back memories of other unpopular verdicts, like the cases involving O.J. Simpson, Rodney King and Casey Anthony.
Before Zimmerman was arrested and charged, people cried for justice for Trayvon Martin. In the wake of the not-guilty verdict, that cry has gone up once again.
But whether or not you agree with the verdict, justice has been served.
The system worked. Zimmerman faced his accusers, the prosecution presented its case, the defense countered, and a jury of six women considered the evidence, not their feelings or their prejudices, and rendered its verdict. That, like it or not, is American jurisprudence at its finest.
As far as the state of Florida is concerned, the case is over, but in a larger sense, it is not. The Justice Department could decide to charge Zimmerman with violating Martin’s civil rights, as happened in the Rodney King case, when four L.A. policemen involved in his beating were acquitted by a jury, but two were later convicted of federal civil rights charges.
Martin’s family could press forward with a wrongful death suit against Zimmerman, much as did the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, who won a judgment against O.J. Simpson after a criminal court found him not guilty of their murders.
We can certainly express our unhappiness if we think the Zimmerman verdict was a travesty of justice. But not if it means resorting to violence.
In the American justice system, the state gets one chance to prove its case against a defendant. If it doesn’t, within a reasonable doubt, that opportunity is lost forever. And all the rioting, store burning, car smashing or skull crushing in the world can’t change that.
And that is as it should be. That is one thing that makes this nation, and its legal system, stand alone above so many others in the world. We live by the rule of law, not of the fist and Molotov cocktail.
Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.