Opinion writer

The George Zimmerman murder trial has become a debacle for the prosecution and an embarrassment for the mob that called him a racist killer and demanded vengeance.

George Zimmerman (Joe Burbank / Reuters)

The New York Times, which hyped the crime and cheered the indictment, now confesses:

Prosecutors in the second-degree murder trial of George Zimmerman scrambled Tuesday to undo damage to their case by one of their leading witnesses, a Sanford police officer who interviewed the defendant hours after he fatally shot Trayvon Martin. . . .  Officer Serino’s testimony, in the second week of the trial in Seminole County Court, was the latest setback for prosecutors, whose witnesses have repeatedly helped bolster the defense’s case.

In near-comic fashion, one prosecution witness after another has confirmed Zimmerman’s version of events, namely that Martin surprised him, pinned Zimmerman to the ground and was delivering a beating when Zimmerman shot Martin in self-defense .

The Times dryly notes that “many legal experts said this week that the state had overreached and that it should have filed manslaughter charges.”

Unlike run-of-the-mill lawyers who can bring any case for which they have a plausible basis, prosecutors have a higher ethical obligation. In the case of Zimmerman, the obvious and gaping holes in the state’s case has prompted robust discussion of overcharging by the prosecutors.

Bennett Gershman at Huffington Post comments:

A first degree murder charge was never a plausible option because there was no proof that Zimmerman had a preconceived plan to cause Martin’s death. But was there any proof that would support a second degree murder charge, namely, that in causing Martin’s death, Zimmerman acted with a “depraved mind”? . . . .

Whatever a jury makes of this evidence — and it is still early in the trial — it seems that under no reasonable theory could a prosecutor argue that Zimmerman acted with a “depraved mind.” Why? The concept of a depraved mind in criminal law traditionally is confined to cases in which a killer does not necessarily intend to kill anyone, but engages in such wanton and heinous conduct as to manifest an utter disregard for human life. The kinds of killings that historically have supported a depraved mind murder involve shooting into a crowd of people, planting a bomb in a public place, striking repeatedly a young child, and driving a car at an excessive speed into a crowded thoroughfare. . . . But bringing a charge of depraved mind murder when a death results from a violent physical encounter as in the Zimmerman-Martin fight is an unreasonable and even irresponsible exercise of prosecutorial power.

He is not alone in this conclusion.

Without the media hoopla, egged on by the president and left-leaning columnists, most prosecutors would not have filed a murder charge. And if the court operates as it should, the judge should dismiss that charge at the end of the prosecutor’s case. But this is trial by punditry.

Those who indicted and tried Zimmerman in the press in the name of civil rights should consider the damage they have wrought. As self-proclaimed champions of civil rights, shouldn’t they be coming to Zimmerman’s defense and raising questions about prosecutorial overreach? Don’t hold your breath.

If media critics were actually critics — as opposed to critics only of conservative media — they’d go back and begin asking some tough questions. Was there a rush to judgment? What is the media’s responsibility for inflaming passions? Where were editors and producers to provide restraint?

There is a  reason we have trials by juries with rules of evidence rather than trial by pundits with innuendo and half-truths. Unfortunately, the latter has opened the possibility for a gross miscarriage of justice if the jury, like the prosecutor who overcharged Martin, feels pressure to satisfy the mob rather than serve justice.