In the wake of the George Zimmerman not guilty verdict, many questions are floating around as to whether he could still face civil charges for his actions. Understanding the differences between the systems of law and how they fit together helps facilitate an understanding.
A person such as George Zimmerman or O.J. Simpson, who is acquitted of manslaughter, second-degree murder, or first-degree murder, can still be held liable for a victim’s wrongful death in a civil trial. A criminal prosecution involves a different court system, different laws, and a different burden of proof than the civil court system. The burden of proof in a criminal case is that the defendant must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In the case of Simpson’s first-degree murder case, to be found guilty, the prosecution needed to prove that the acts were done with premeditation and malice aforethought beyond a reasonable doubt. Zimmerman’s second-degree murder charge required proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin with ill-will towards him while acting in disregard for human life. These are very high burdens of proof.
In contrast, in a civil case for wrongful death, the plaintiff (usually the family of the deceased) must prove only that the defendant’s intentional and unlawful conduct resulted in the victim’s death. This is a much easier standard to meet. Moreover, the burden in a civil lawsuit is a much lower standard — preponderance of the evidence, which means that it is more likely than not. While a defendant won’t go to jail if found civilly liable, substantial monetary judgments can be levied against the defendant.
For these reasons, it becomes clear how a criminal jury might fail to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and thus acquit the defendant. However, a civil jury might reasonably find by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant’s intentional and unlawful conduct resulted in the victim’s death and should result in civil liability.
Therefore, while George Zimmerman was found not guilty in his criminal trial, if Trayvon Martin’s family decides to pursue a civil case against him for wrongful death, it would not be inconsistent for the civil jury to find him liable, just as O.J. Simpson’s civil jury did. The legal outcomes would not contradict one another.
Stay tuned to see if Zimmerman will be back in court.