Noah Kovacs has over ten years’ experience in the legal field. He has since retired early and enjoys blogging about small business law, legal marketing, and everything in between. He recently purchased his first cabin and spends his free time remodeling its kitchen for his family. Twitter: @NoahKovacs
In spite of the numerous lawyer jokes that suggest otherwise, being an attorney, especially a criminal defense lawyer, is a tough gig that forces attorneys into strange and complex moral and ethical conundrums that most people never have to and would never want to face. For instance, there are amazing public defenders forced by their job to defend clients, to the best of their ability, even when they know that client is guilty. Similarly, there are prosecutors forced to prosecute people they pity and pursue a guilty plea on charges they consider unfair.
It’s not just the lawyers though. Because human nature and interaction is so complex and every single situation is different, everyone involved in criminal law is subject to confusing and thorny issues and choices- including juries. And one of the most interesting of these legal conundrums is the issue of “prior bad acts” (PBAs).
Prior bad acts are just what they sound like- bad… acts someone did prior to their trial. The citing of PBAs during a case becomes tricky when the lawyers and judge(s) involved are forced to determine whether those acts are relevant to a particular case or situation and when they serve only to prejudice a jury against a defendant. An excellent and timely “torn from the headlines” example of this tension is presented by the George Zimmerman controversy.
Despite the passionate and often extremely heated debate regarding the Trayvon Martin shooting, both sides were basically operating on either side of a political divide without too much but Zimmerman’s word to go on. Generally, supporters of Zimmerman assumed he was a decent guy forced to protect himself, while detractors regarded him as a racist bully who killed an innocent kid.
However, since the shooting details of both Trayvon Martin’s and George Zimmerman’s past and current life are emerging into an unsettling pattern that seems to paint a far less flattering picture of them than the one there respective supporters had favored. Some of those details were known before and during the trial (though many weren’t known by the jury) and many only became available after, quite recently.
For instance, there are accusations of molestation made by a cousin of George Zimmerman’s, which could arguably be considered a prior bad act that wasn’t relevant to the case. True or not, alleged sexual battery has little or nothing to do with the shooting. More relevant to the Trayvon Martin case, however, are Zimmerman’s past and current interactions with police, several involving domestic violence disputes.
In 2005 Zimmerman was arrested for “resisting arrest with violence” and “battery of a law enforcement officer” when the officer attempted to question a friend of Zimmerman’s about drinking underage. Later that same year, Zimmerman’s ex-fiancée filed a restraining order against him after he allegedly stalked her around her neighborhood in a car before confronting and allegedly shoving her. Zimmerman claimed that she instigated the conflict, getting physical with him when he refused to spend the night with her.
Far more recently, after the trial Zimmerman was once again detained by police when his wife called 911 in a panic alleging that he had punched her father, injuring his nose, threatening she and her father with a gun and taking an iPad she was recording their altercation with and smashing it against a wall before pulling a knife and slashing it up. Shellie, Zimmerman’s wife, has since dropped the charges although she still alleges that he instigated the fight. The police also have some doubt about her new claims.
A good argument could be made for the inclusion of those during a trial because they speak to a number of seemingly relevant, pertinent issues. They suggest that George Zimmerman has a temper and is susceptible to violence. They also bring up one of the earlier-mentioned patterns: that in three incidents of violence, two involving women and one a minor, Zimmerman claimed that the other party was the aggressor.
He claims that he just happened to be in his first fiancée’s neighborhood when she attacked him for refusing to sleep with her. In the most recent scuffle, his version of the story has his wife instigating violence against him- although if she did instigate an attack, calling 911 in a panic is strange behavior for her and smashing the iPad her attack was recorded on is strange behavior for him.
That pattern seems to at least call Zimmerman’s Trayvon Martin story into question, as he claimed that Martin jumped him, hit him dozens of times, smashed his head against concrete, tried to smother him with a hand over the mouth and finally reached for Zimmerman’s gun after telling Zimmerman that he meant to kill him. That is strange behavior for someone who, according to a recording of George Zimmerman telling the police as much, was running away from Zimmerman minutes before the attack.
The rub here, though, is that we don’t know what happened. It’s possible that Zimmerman is the sort of guy who attracts bad luck and everything he’s said is true. The impulse behind keeping that kind of thing from a jury is a noble one- a person should be judged, without prejudice, for the crime being tried (in this case second-degree murder) and not for mistakes in their past. However, our past has an undeniable influence on our present and often, past patterns of behavior are important and even necessary for perspective.
The George Zimmerman with no history of violence and known to all his acquaintances as an even-tempered, cool-headed guy and the George Zimmerman with multiple arrests for assaults and/or battery, restraining orders filed against him and a tendency to tell questionable stories are two very different people to a jury. As complex as life tends to be, though, the truth is probably that George Zimmerman is a little bit of both calm, collected family man and short-tempered antagonist. Figuring out which of those was present on the night Trayvon Martin was shot and a million other hazy, confusing situations like it is what makes the law such a profoundly difficult facet of our society.
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