The Stasi as a Cautionary Tale
Off to Scandinavia for Two Weeks

Trayvon Martin, National Cliches, and German Smugness

I was quoted a few times in this Legal Tribune story (g) about the Zimmerman case, which makes the point that, if you consider all the facts surrounding the shooting of Trayvon Martin, a German court would likely have acquitted George Zimmerman as well. After analyzing the case in some depth, the author speculates about why the German media has been so consistently wrong about the case (my translation):

Where does the mistaken impression come from that American self-defense law is so much more permissive than German law? For one thing, ignorance of the foreign legal system, combined with national cliches which assign Americans the role of pistol-wielding cowboys. The circumstances of the case certainly lent themselves to this interpretation at first glance.

No, that's not a quote from me, but I could hardly agree more. Coverage of the Zimmerman case in much of the mainstream German media has been marked by truly epic incompetence, smugness, and East-German style moralizing tendentiousness.* So many German journalists desperately wanted to believe that an all-white jury set Zimmerman free after he gunned down a young black man for no reason. To this end, they have resolutely ignored anything that complicates that narrative (why let the facts get in the way of a good story?), implicitly reassuring their readers that in Germany, the best of all possible worlds, such a horrible scandal could never take place.

Much of the coverage has featured in-depth interviews with protesters venting their opinions about the case, as if that were any way to shed more light than heat. Whenever I see German news teams broadcasting completely uncritical interviews with American protesters, I always feel a temptation to go to Occupy Frankfurt, interview some of the ragamuffins and leftist extremists camping out there, and broadcast them on German television until every German viewer is convinced their country is a fascist police state with massive unemployment.

Now, before this post gets any more ranty (but that was pretty fun), I'll just make a few points before moving on from this topic forever:

  • The jury in the Zimmerman case was not all-white. There was one member who was non-white. Although there is no Constitutional requirement that juries mirror the local ethnic composition, this one did. 1 out of the 6 jurors was non-white and Seminole County, Florida, is 78% white. The jury was all-female, which is a bit unusual, but I can't imagine what difference that would have made. Zimmerman himself, of course, is half-Peruvian, and would be identified by most Americans as 'Hispanic', for what that's worth. Only 8% of German judges (g), by the way, have foreign origins, and the number who have dark skin is no doubt miniscule.
  • The jury deliberated 16 hours on the case, was divided over the issue of possible manslaughter liability for a time, but then came to the unanimous conclusion that Zimmerman acted in self-defense. To reach that conclusion, they had to find that George Zimmerman, at the time he fired the gun, had a reasonable fear of great bodily harm or death.
  • Although we will never know exactly what happened and Martin isn't here to tell his side of the story, Zimmerman consistently stated that he followed Martin for a time, that Martin turned around and came back toward Zimmerman and confronted him, and began the physical fight. Martin got the upper hand, forced Zimmerman to the ground, punched him in the face, and hit his head repeatedly against the concrete sidewalk. At this time, Zimmerman fired.
  • Zimmerman had called the police, with the call ending at 7:15 pm, and knew the police were on their way to find him, which they did at 7:17 pm. If you were planning to gun down an unarmed person for no reason or just out of spite or racism, would you (1) call the police beforehand, and (2) carry through on the plan knowing the police were literally seconds away?
  • Physical evidence corroborated Zimmerman's story. He had injuries on his face and head consistent with the story, he had grass stains on the back of his clothes, and the gun was fired from the position he said it was fired. His basic account of the confrontation remained stable through several explanations to the police, which is why the police believed him. The jury, after hearing hours and hours of evidence during a full formal trial on the merits, also found his story about the physical confrontation credible, otherwise it's difficult to see how they would have reached the verdict they did.
  • The 'stand your ground' law in Florida played a role in the case, but it wasn't decisive. The defense never invoked the 'stand your ground law' during the trial. They did not have to -- their theory from the very beginning was that, at the time of the shooting, Zimmerman was on the ground, being repeatedly hit by Martin. Since there was no chance of his escaping anyway, the question of whether he should have tried to do so was moot. It is true that the phrase 'stand his ground' appeared in the jury instructions and one juror has said they discussed the idea. But there's no evidence the law played a significant role. Zimmerman would have been acquitted by the jury even if Florida didn't have a stand your ground law.

Zimmerman would probably have also been acquitted under German law. German law also has a 'stand-your-ground' principle, called (in various wordings) 'Recht muss dem Unrecht nicht weichen' -- someone who is not doing anything illegal is not obliged to retreat in the face of an illegal attack. The response to the threat must be proportional, but the judge will take into account the means available to the attacked person when judging proportionality. You cannot immediately respond to a punch with a knife, for example, but if you are punched repeatedly and you have a reasonable fear of severe bodily harm or death and cannot adequately defend yourself with your fists, you may then use the knife. German law also allows you to use a gun in these circumstances. If you are being physically attacked, have a reasonable fear of severe injury or death, and the gun is the only realistic means you have to stop the attack, you may use it to defend yourself. You are ordinarily expected to yell a warning or fire a warning shot, but the law will not require you to do these things if the circumstances don't allow for it. As does American law, German law realizes that a physical fight is a chaotic event and that you cannot expect people to exercise careful, detached judgment in the middle of one.

Of course, spinning out a counterfactual about how a case would have played out in another legal system is only a mental exercise, but I think that Zimmerman would have had a good chance under German law. He would have argued that (1) he was doing nothing illegal at the time of the incident (following someone isn't a crime, nor -- for the purposes of this hypothetical only -- is owning a legal, licensed concealed weapon); (2) Martin started the physical confrontation; (3) Martin got the upper hand, forced him to the ground, and punched him and hit his head against a concrete sidewalk; (4) he was unable to defend himself with his fists against the continued beating and feared serious injury or death; (5) was not in a position to yell a warning or fire a warning shot, since he was lying on the ground being punched; and (6) fired the gun in self-defense.

Of course, it should go without saying that the death of Trayvon Martin, like the senseless death of any 17-year-old, is a tragedy (in the genuine sense). Martin was where he had a right to be and was doing nothing wrong when some guy began to follow him for no reason he could discern, quite possibly just because he was black. It appears Martin may have overreacted out of fear or anger, but it's hard not to sympathize with him. If Zimmerman hadn't been carrying a gun, it's likely nobody would have died. But still, this case is simply not a convincing symbol for the very real, very problematic racial and class disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system. In fact, it's not even a symbol of how 'different' American justice is from German, or European justice. The fact that so many (not all, but many) German journalists have tried to make these points by using a selective and distorted version of the case is yet another serious black mark on the German media.

* I know this comparison is unfair. It's unfair, that is, to East German media. I once read a content analysis of East and West German school textbooks from the 1980s which found that the West German textbooks presented a more biased, one-sided, and negative portrayal of American society than East German textbooks. Let that sink in for a minute. (I'll work on getting the cite for this soon).