Understanding the Zimmerman Verdict: The Mechanics of Self-Defense and Reasonable Doubt

I don’t pretend to know all the facts behind the death of Trayvon Martin, nor do I even know all the facts presented in a court of law and deemed credible by a jury. Lest there be any confusion, these are scarcely ever one in the same.

What I see when I watch cable news networks are talking heads marshalling the case for why Zimmerman is probably guilty or probably not guilty. I hear strong arguments in support of George Zimmerman initiating an altercation resulting in a fatal shooting, and I see social media buzzing with people angered by the perception of a failed justice system.

The fact is the justice system worked exactly how our framers intended and precisely how civil rights groups should demand. These interesting television debates which nobody will ever win are simply out of sync with the ultimate issue decided by the jury in the George Zimmerman case, and they fail to appreciate the mechanics of self-defense and reasonable doubt.

Legally and constitutionally a criminal defendant gets the benefit of the doubt and is presumed to have done nothing wrong at all. The burden placed on the prosecutor is to overcome this presumption by proof beyond all reasonable doubt. What’s more, when the defendant raises self-defense, the prosecutor must also disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.

How these extra-judicial debates miss the mark is by focusing on which side has the better argument. Inherent in the concept of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is the idea that a jury can agree the prosecutor’s theory of the facts is probably right, or even clear and convincing, and still be legally required to find a defendant not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt (or not guilty based on reasonable doubt about the prosecution’s theory against self-defense). The George Zimmerman jury could very well have believed the prosecution had the better argument but were unable to eliminate even a faint possibility the possibility the defense theory was correct.

The most difficult task of a trial lawyer is to simplify complex legal concepts for a jury. We all remember the phrase “if the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit” from the O.J. Simpson trial. The glove that doesn’t fit in the Zimmerman case has been all but ignored by the media—perhaps because of a false sense that effective advocacy must always be exciting or sexy. This simply boring demonstrative (shown below) used by defense attorney Mark O’Mara in closing arguments could easily have been the most important thing shown to the jury throughout the whole trial. In one single chart the defense simplified foreign and counterintuitive legal concepts for easy public consumption. As an attorney, I can’t think of a better way to explain the Zimmerman verdict and the mechanics of self-defense and reasonable doubt.

self-defense burden of proof

Written by: Rosenthal Kalabus & Therrian Last Updated : June 14, 2023