Instructions to the jury

I have been on a jury in a criminal trial. We convicted on assault 4 (which has pretty low standards in Washington State – basically if somebody touches you and you don’t want them to, that counts as assault 4) and one other count, but failed to convict on two more serious counts, including intimidating a witness. But that experience has led me to be curious, whenever a gross miscarriage of justice appears to have occurred – as in the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the deadly shooting of Trayvon Martin – what instructions the jury was given.

I couldn’t seem to find a complete word-for-word transcript, possibly because jury instructions can be quite long, but most news sources seem to agree that jurors were told:

  1. To decide whether Zimmerman reasonably believed deadly force was necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself.
  2. That Zimmerman had no duty to retreat, and could meet force with deadly force if he was not engaged in an unlawful activity.
  3. That if they had a reasonable doubt about whether Zimmerman was justified in using deadly force, they should find him not guilty.

There are no doubt additional details, and of course I did not sit in on the trial and view all the evidence presented. But, knowing what I do, I still think that based on the first instruction I would have to convict. How could Zimmerman – the larger, stronger, armed opponent — have reasonably believed he had to kill Martin in order to prevent great bodily harm to himself? (Unless Martin was a werewolf or a ninja or something, and this was certainly not established by the defense)

Of course, Zimmerman said he believed deadly force was necessary. (He would say that, wouldn’t he?)  He might be telling the subjective truth — at the time of the shooting he might have sincerely feared for his life. But was that fear reasonable?

No. I don’t think it was.

Consider – I am terrified of spiders. Am I being reasonable when I kill them? Of course not. I know perfectly well that 99.9% of all spiders I encounter pose no physical threat to me at all. Do I often kill them anyway? Yes. Because they’re spiders. They scare me. So they present a mild emotional threat.

My terror is real. It is sincere. But it is not reasonable.

If spiders were sentient, I would be a monster. (Although if they were sentient, I could probably just  ask them to stay out of my house, so…)

Instruction 2 is the one that appears to pertain to “stand your ground” laws. But note the caveat — if he was not engaged in an unlawful activity. I think stalking someone with intent to kill is unlawful activity, even in Florida. But here again we come down to psychological motivation. The material fact is that Zimmerman was following Martin, which I suppose is legal if he had no criminal intent. Establishing criminal intent using objective material evidence is pretty difficult. (There’s a Law & Order series about that.) The only way to know what was going on in Zimmerman’s mind is for him to tell us. Well, isn’t that convenient? So again, I lean toward conviction.

So the final instruction: if the jury had a reasonable doubt about whether Zimmerman was justified in using deadly force, they should find him not guilty. Note that Zimmerman wasn’t even up on murder one – where we all understand the “beyond reasonable doubt” standard. In this case, it sounds like a bad instruction, but it might have been necessitated by Florida law. It means that, had I been on that jury, even if I thought that Zimmerman had no good reason to believe he needed to use deadly force against Martin, if I had any reasonable doubt about my own thoughts, I would have been required to acquit.

By what standard is my doubt considered reasonable or not?

Sure, it is technically possible to imagine a narrative where Zimmerman was a well-meaning guy doing what he thought was reasonable (as opposed to an opportunistic sociopath who wanted to kill a “thug” in order to play out a twisted vigilante fantasy). But even in that, the most charitable possible spin on the events, Zimmerman still had no good reason to believe he was in danger from Martin.

No good reason. But perhaps he had a bad reason.

And that’s why this case is about race.


  1. “Reasonable Doubt” is for criminal convictions, not just murder one.

    1. Author

      Is it? I didn’t remember that wording from my jury instructions.

  2. Yes – beyond a reasonable doubt is for when you’re being tried by the government for a crime, preponderance of the evidence is for civil trials.


    From Wikipedia: In the United States, juries must be instructed to apply the reasonable doubt standard when determining the guilt or innocence of a criminal defendant, but there is much disagreement as to whether the jury should be given a definition of “reasonable doubt.”


    In a civil trial, it pretty much has to be preponderance of the evidence — there are two sides, one of them has to win, so it goes to whichever side has the majority of evidence.

    Ideally, in a criminal trial, people don’t get put into prison because “they probably did it”.

  3. If Spiders were sentient, they could have their own stand their ground law. In which case they would undoubtedly bite you because your arachnafobia makes you a danger to them and they feel threatened by you when you enter their hunting ground (AKA your house). And since they speak spider and not English, they would take your explanation that they should stay out of your house as a moment where you are distracted and still so they can bite you more easily.

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