Like many people, I feel perplexed and dismayed by the not-guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. I want to believe that those six women—who heard the evidence on both sides—did their jobs and made the right decision. But as a lawyer, I am not so naïve as to believe that justice prevails in all instances, especially when questions of race are involved.

This verdict has people up in arms. On one side, folks are demonstrating, decrying, and destroying. At the opposite extreme, conservative news commentators are claiming that a criminal charge should never have been brought against George Zimmerman in the first place. The day after the verdict was handed down, Geraldo Rivera asserted that political pressure—including President Obama’s comment that if he had a son, “he would look like Treyvon”—caused Florida prosecutors to pursue a charge that lacked sufficient evidence. But President Obama merely acknowledged what we Americans already know: A young, Black male runs a higher-than-average risk of being wrongfully perceived as a criminal in a “nice” neighborhood. In this instance, Treyvon Martin paid for that common misperception with his life. And if we are completely honest, there's something else we all know: Had a 29-year old Black man shot a 17-year-old unarmed white teenager under similar circumstances, it would not have taken 44 days to charge him with a crime; he would have been arrested and handcuffed at the scene. Hence, the initial public outcry, particularly within the Black community.

Zimmerman claims to have shot Martin in self-defense while pinned to the sidewalk; he alleged that Treyvon Martin was slamming his face against the pavement, and he instinctively drew his weapon in fear for his life. The testimony of Zimmerman’s neighbors seems to bear out his version of events, at least as far as who was pinning and punching whom at the time of the fatal shooting. But even so, Zimmerman's actions are hardly a textbook case of self-defense.

A key element of any self-defense claim is that the party alleging it cannot have done anything to provoke the assault.  Zimmerman was clearly the initial aggressor in this conflict. He noticed Treyvon Martin first, began scoping him, and then called police while Martin was minding his own business, buying Skittles and Arizona iced tea on his way to visit his father. 
Even so, we must give Zimmerman the benefit of every doubt. A defendant is innocent until proven guilty, and under Florida law, an initial aggressor may still regain his right to justifiably use force in self defense (see, citing Florida Statutes section 776.041). Did Zimmerman, despite pursuing Martin over the contrary instructions of the 9-1-1 dispatcher, subsequently "regain his innocence" if Treyvon Martin threw the first punch and Zimmerman genuinely feared for his life?

Perhaps, but according to the Washington Post, it still wasn’t clear at the conclusion of the trial exactly who was pursuing whom immediately before the fight broke out. For all we know, Martin feared for his safety when he first tackled Zimmerman. What we do know is that Zimmerman decided Martin was “suspicious-looking”—that he “looked like” other young, Black males who had burglarized Zimmerman’s complex in the past. Why? Because Martin was a Black teenager wearing a hoodie. So Zimmerman decided to call police. Perhaps a poor judgment call, but at least Zimmerman was still acting within the bounds of the law at that point. 

But then, he followed Martin while armed with a 9 millimeter pistol, got out of his car, and approached the unarmed teenager. The altercation escalated to the point where Zimmerman found himself on the wrong end of a strapping, six-foot-tall, 17-year-old football player. By this point, Zimmerman may have had good reason to fear for his bodily safety—if not his life. But Zimmerman brought the entire mess upon himself, which is why 
this verdict feels “off” to so many people—myself included. As between the dead man and the one still alive to tell the tale, Zimmerman was the party who set this tragic chain of events in motion.  He aggressively targeted, followed, and then approached a total stranger based on what amounted to amateur racial profiling. Zimmerman’s unlawful vigilantism sparked a fatal incident in which he ended up taking the life of an unarmed teenager who was doing nothing wrong at the time.

And yet, Zimmerman will receive no punishment for his actions and even gets to keep his gun. He didn't even have to sweat telling his side of the story.
I realize a criminal defendant is never obligated to testify in his own defense—and nothing may be read by the jury into his declining to do so. Indeed, it is risky for a defendant to subject himself to cross-examination, and far more clever types than Zimmerman have gotten creamed on the witness stand. (I suspect Zimmerman’s lawyer wanted to avoid that eventuality at all cost.) Nonetheless, I would have expected Zimmerman to insist on taking the stand. You can't claim the role of victim and present yourself as an even-tempered, color-blind pillar of the community while hiding behind your new suit and hired gun, George. I'm just saying, it makes you looks bad to a public more than a little curious about how you vibe.

It is a sad truism of the American justice system that juries don’t always “get it right.” Race can and does play a role in how juries perceive people and situations. Given that Treyvon Martin would be alive today had George Zimmerman simply minded his business and followed the dispatcher’s instructions, shouldn’t he be punished in some way for taking a human life? When a scant, six-person jury returns a “not-guilty” verdict by default, and news reports later reveal that these six women weren't even of one mind as far as the the lesser manslaughter charge, the decision leaves many feeling that justice has not been served. George Zimmerman may have "regained his innocence" under Florida law, but this verdict robbed many Americans of what precious little was left of our innocent faith in the judicial system.