Consistency – What Trial Advocates Can Learn From State v. Zimmerman By Looking Outside Of The Courtroom
A lot of students of trial advocacy like myself looked into the courtroom to watch perhaps some of the two best advocate teams in north Florida do battle over what has now become one of the most followed cases in the history of the American justice system. As we sat there analysing presentation strategies, openings, closings, direct examinations, and cross examinations we undoubtedly learned some techniques to add to our arsenal for future wars to come. But as we sat in the courtroom watching intently we missed perhaps one of the most important advocacy tools known to man, the consistency principle.
Explored by Dr. Robert Caldini in his best seller Influence Sciene and Practice, the consistency principle states that a person has a strong urge to “stand his ground” if it were. Once a person has made up his or her mind regarding something, there is a compelling force keeping him or her from changing his or her mind. How is that related to a case like Zimmerman’s? Simple, since the media attention was so heavy from the get-go, people on both camps had pre-conceived ideas of what happened, and once the facts came out at trial, it did not matter whether the evidence was there or not, the consistency principle kept them from being able to change their minds.
Lets analyse the consistency principle at play in this case:
Back in 2012 the media portrayed a story where 8th grader Trayvon Martin was walking home with skittles and ice tea when he was hunted down and killed by 250lbs white George Zimmerman shortly after shouting “These fucking coons, they always get away.” The media made no mention that Zimmerman was injured in the confrontation until more than year later, and no mention that Martin himself may have had a history of violence, including allegations of Martin having punched a bus driver. “”Yu ain’t tell me you swung on a bus driver,” Martin’s cousin allegedly wrote to him. As the narrative continued it emerged that the attacker (Zimmerman) had a prior arrest for resisting a law enforcement officer, and had had a domestic violence complaint made against him by his ex-girlfriend. Still no evidence surfaced regarding Martin’s alleged history of violence.
At that point the answer was clear, an armed grown man with a history of violence, and a racial animus, had hunted down a peaceful 8th grader because of his race, and had shot him dead without provocation. Presented with such an open and shut case with such moral implications many took a stance condemning the attacker, and rightly so. At first the rationalization was that “A boy who was doing nothing wrong was shot and killed by a racist biggot.” Then when evidence surfaced that Zimmerman actually had nothing against black people, and never said “Coons” in the 911 tape, the rationalization became that “He doesn’t need to be a Klansman, he profiled Martin because he was black wearing a hoodie, and that’s wrong.” Then it surfaced that Martin was not an 8th grader weighing 80lbs, but it didn’t matter because at 17 “He was still a child.” Then when it surfaced that Martin was possibly a violent person then the realization became that “He is just like any other child, he may have some problems in school, but that doesn’t mean he did anything wrong that night.” And finally, when it surfaced that Zimmerman had injuries to his head and face, the rationalization became “It doesn’t matter whether Martin struck Zimmerman repeatedly, maybe he was so scared of the guy following him that he felt he needed to attack him first, and beat him up, and if Zimmerman should have never left his car this would have never happened.”
It is easy to see that the more that time passed the case for Martin being an innocent 8th grader who did absolutely nothing wrong that night became less and less compelling. But the interesting part about the whole thing is that even though more facts came out that would weaken that narrative in any reasonable mind, most people who had made up their mind in the beginning maintained their stance. with 66% of people still believing that a guilty verdict should be returned even after seeing the trial and all the evidence presented.
A very telling sign that the consistency principle was at play here was the fact that after the evidence came out at trial that conclusively proved that Martin had caused Zimmerman’s injuries before he was shot, a good amount of people were saying things like “Good job Florida, where you can harass somebody to make them angry enough to whoop your ass, and when they do you can shoot them and claim self defense.” If we were to take the consistency principle out of the equation, that position makes no logical sense at all. Let’s illustrate it with a hypothetical:
- First Man walks up to Second Man and starts asking him why he is where he is.
- Second Man feels like he doesn’t need to answer any questions, becomes outraged that questions are being asked, and starts beating First Man on his face and head.
- First Man shoots Second Man dead.
When you read that hypothetical, did you find yourself trying to convince yourself that Second Man was justified in beating First Man because First Man’s conduct was so outrageous that Second Man had a right to start beating his face and head? Probably not. Did you feel that First Man’s walking up to Second Man and asking him questions was so outrageous as to legally deny his right to use deadly force when Second Man was beating his face and head? Again, probably not. The difference is that it is just a hypothetical, a scenario in which you had made yourself no preconceived ideas or notions. A scenario where you had not already determined what was right and what wasn’t, and because of that, it was a scenario where you were free from the consistency principle to make an objective decision.
To sum it all up, whether you agree with the verdict or not, or whether you are on one side or the other, there is a valid lesson to be learned from this case-The consistency principle is alive and well in every human being in the planet, if you know of it, if you can put it to use early on in your trial, you will have a better chance of having jurors reject reasonable explanations if accepting them would force them to contradict their previous conclusions.