These are facts: on February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin. You already know all about these facts and have been debating their significance for a couple of weeks: Trayvon Martin was 17 years old, unarmed, wearing a hoodie, and had with him a cell phone, iced tea, and Skittles; George Zimmerman had a gun. The Sanford, Florida police refused to arrest George Zimmerman, claiming I think incorrectly that Florida law prevented his arrest. He’s been at liberty since. He’s been uncharged since. Almost a month later, on March 22, 2012, when no arrest had been made and public opinion about the case was boiling over in demonstrations and media attention and criticism, Special Prosecutor Angela Corey took over from the local Prosecutor. She will be the one who decides what charges, if any, are warranted. The whole world is watching. And the Feds are doing their own parallel investigation to decide whether to bring a civil rights prosecution in federal court regardless of what Angela Corey decides. We are now 37 days after the death of Trayvon Martin. We are now 9 days after the appointment of Angela Corey. And there is still no arrest.
I’m impatient. And fearful. I wonder aloud whether the delay in making this arrest is stupidity, incompetence, racism, politics, or a combination of some or all of these. I wonder why justice is delayed in this case. I wonder why George Zimmerman has not been arrested. And I am sorry to admit that I fear that the delay means that Florida will not charge George Zimmerman with a crime.
How long does it take to decide whether to charge George Zimmerman with a crime?
Even if one were to discard virtually everything from the initial Sanford Police investigation, even if one were to start all over again from the top with new, more detailed interviews of the very few witnesses who saw or heard anything, even if one were to review and re-examine whatever forensic evidence there is, how long can it possibly take to develop enough information to make a decision, to decide whether to charge George Zimmerman with a crime?
And how long can it possibly take to decide whether to charge police officials with obstruction of justice or official misconduct or tampering with witnesses? How long can all of this take? Apparently it can take a very long time. How long should this actually take? Not long.
This isn’t a complex bank or securities fraud or terrorism conspiracy case. No. This is, sad to say, an all too common homicide case. We know who the victim is. We know who the shooter is. We have some witnesses who saw or heard something. We have whatever physical evidence was accumulated. We have whatever medical and other forensic evidence there is. This, when all is said and done, is not a complicated case. It’s a sensitive case, yes. It’s an important case, yes. But above all else, it’s not a complicated one.
Let’s remember, if we possibly can, that the ultimate decision about whether George Zimmerman is guilty is definitely not the decision prosecutors now face. That ultimate decision, the decision of whether Zimmerman committed a crime, has to be made by a court or a jury, and his guilt has to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt by competent evidence at a trial. And that’s not the decision the prosecutor now faces. It’s not. The present decision is simply this: charge Geroge Zimmerman with a crime, or don’t.
You can formulate this question in other ways. You can ask whether there is enough evidence to charge George Zimmerman with a crime. Or you can ask whether there’s enough evidence to believe that Zimmerman probably committed a crime. You can parse the standard. You can evaluate the words. You can formulate the words in many different ways. But ultimately it’s not complicated: the prosecutor has the discretion to charge George Zimmerman if she believes there is probable cause that he committed a crime. She’s not required to charge him with anything.
How long can it possibly take to make that relatively simple determination? Not long. In routine homicide cases, the decision is usually made within hours. And then there’s an arrest. In more complicated homicide cases, there’s an arrest and a prompt grand jury presentation, usually within days. How many cases can anybody cite in which it’s taken more than a month to decide whether to charge a shooter (who is not a policeman) with a homicide? How many cases can anybody think of that are in this category? I’ll tell you: I can’t think of one. Tell me I’m wrong if you can find a single one.
So I am impatient. It’s a truism that justice delayed is justice denied. And now, here we are, nine days into the second prosecutor investigating the case, and more than a month from the death of Trayvon Martin, and still no arrest. And no communication from the prosecution. This is a disgrace. And it’s a dishonor to Trayvon Martin and his family. So I am impatient.
And I regret to say that I have begun to fear that the quest for justice for Trayvon Martin will include the refusal of Florida prosecutors to charge George Zimmerman with a crime. What else, I ask you, could take this long?
cross-posted from The Dream Antilles