When George Zimmerman was acquitted of manslaughter and second degree murder in the killing of Trayvon Martin, many across the nation were stunned, believing that Zimmerman would have been found guilty of some crime based on evidence reported on in the news.
In the days that followed, theories abounded about the factors that led to the jury’s decision, starting with Zimmerman’s charges. Much of the attention has landed on one woman: Florida State Attorney Angela Corey, the official responsible for deciding the charges in Zimmerman’s case.
Law experts including a former prosecutor and defense attorney that were interviewed for this article and others quoted in stories published by respected outlets believe the state attorney has established a record of overcharging defendants in serious criminal cases. They say the high level of evidence required to prove the second degree murder charge selected by Corey in Zimmerman’s case may have been nearly impossible to prove based on the evidence.
For Dan Markel, D’Alemberte Professor of Law at Florida State University, from the moment he reviewed evidence regarding the Zimmerman case online, he thought a charge of second degree murder was inappropriate.
“In light of the physical evidence and eyewitness testimony statements, it seemed there would be almost no plausible way for the state to surmount the burden of proof, which requires the state to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman did not act in self-defense,” Markel told theGrio.
Corey defends Zimmerman’s charges
The state of Florida defines second-degree murder as the unlawful killing of a human being, without any premeditation, perpetrated by any act imminently dangerous to another and “evincing a depraved mind regardless of human life.” In the killing of Trayvon Martin, and the subsequent trial against George Zimmerman, whether the state could demonstrate that Zimmerman acted with “a depraved mind,” or was merely defending himself, was essential to the case against him.
Zimmerman has stated from the time of the shooting that he killed Martin in self-defense after being attacked by the teen in Sanford, Florida in February 2012.
Markel acknowledged that the legal standard for bringing a charge is different, and lower, than for convincing a jury. But, he said prosecutors should still only bring charges that are supported by evidence showing guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
That is exactly what Angela Corey says she did.
“It’s virtually impossible for prosecutors to overcharge a defendant in the state of Florida due to the numerous safeguards embedded in our rules of criminal procedure and our laws and our statutes,” Corey said in an interview with theGrio.
In defense of her decisions, Corey detailed a multilayered system in which an improper charge can be challenged at several stages.
First and foremost, Corey said that if Zimmerman’s defense team had believed the state did not have sufficient facts to sustain the charges, there were two motions to dismiss that they could have filed. Neither was filed. Zimmerman also had a right to file a Stand Your Ground motion, which might have given him immunity to criminal and any possible civil prosecution. Again, that motion was not filed.
Finally, Corey said the defense had two chances at a judgment of acquittal, in which the judge could have ruled that the facts presented did not meet the charges against Zimmerman. Instead, the judge ruled in the state’s favor on both of the judgments.
“These are things that go on in courtrooms every day across this country and anyone who practices law in Florida knows that this is how it works,” Corey said. “So for anyone to allege that [Zimmerman] was overcharged would be to ignore the fact that a judge ruled, basically, on whether or not we overcharged him by refusing to grant the motion for judgment of acquittal,” during the trial, she explained.
Critics refute Corey’s self-defense
Still, Corey has her critics within Florida’s legal community, many of whom believe the Zimmerman case, like a few other notable cases, were mishandled by the State Attorney’s Office.
“I would have tried him for negligent manslaughter. Second degree murder was an astounding overreach,” Wesley White, a former assistant state attorney in Florida, told theGrio.
Corey was once White’s boss, having hired him as an assistant prosecutor more than four years ago. He resigned in December 2012, citing disagreement with Corey’s prosecutorial priorities. He has been one of her most vocal critics ever since.
White, in addition to once working for Corey, became a player in the Zimmerman case when he emerged as the attorney for her former IT director, Ben Kruidbos. He was fired after testifying in a pretrial hearing that prosecutors withheld evidence, such as unflattering records from Trayvon Martin’s phone, from George Zimmerman’s defense team.
In response to questions about the firing, Corey’s office released a statement to NBC News through her spokesperson Jackelyn Barnard, saying, “Mr. Kruidbos is no longer an employee at the State Attorney’s Office. Due to this being a personnel matter, there will be no further comment at this time.”
Despite Corey’s assurances that her office does not engage in overcharging, White says, “Overcharging is a part of [Corey’s] everyday M.O.”
He believes the Florida State Attorney’s office is “hardwired” to overcharge in an effort to force plea deals, legal bargains in which defendants plead guilty to a crime in exchange for concessions from prosecutors – typically reduced jail time.
Unlike the Zimmerman trial, in other cases experts argue that Corey’s overcharging has led to unnecessarily harsh punishments.
This tactic, some would argue, led to one Florida woman being sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot.