It feels wrong, this verdict of not guilty for George Zimmerman. It feels wrong to say that Zimmerman is guilty of no crime. If he hadn't approached 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, if he hadn't pulled his gun, Martin would be alive.
But that doesn't mean Zimmerman was guilty of murder, not in the state of Florida. It doesn't even mean he was guilty of manslaughter, though that was the middle ground I had hoped the jury would find its way toward. Here's the problem: To convict Zimmerman of murder, the six women of the jury had to find that he killed Martin out of ill will, hatred or spite, or with a depraved mind. The law didn't account for Zimmerman's fear or feeling of being physically threatened.
But the evidence suggested that in the heat of the moment, Zimmerman could have felt both of those things. A forensics expert testified that from the angle of his wounds, it appeared Martin was on top of Zimmerman when he was shot.
There was also evidence on the other side: None of Zimmerman's DNA was found under Martin's fingernails. None of Martin's DNA was found on the gun. These facts contradict key aspects of Zimmerman's account. Why believe him about the rest of his account? And even if you do give him the benefit of that doubt, why did Zimmerman feel so very threatened? Why did he pull his gun and shoot to kill?
All of this focus on the moment of the shooting telescopes this story in a way that feels misleading. It leaves out Zimmerman's history of calling the cops on black people and his decision that night to follow Martin. It leaves out his excruciatingly terrible, patently racist judgment.
But that doesn't mean the jury's verdict was racist. In Florida, a person "who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked" has no duty to retreat. He or she has the right to "meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself." The jury could have faulted Zimmerman for starting the altercation with Martin and still believed him not guilty of murder, or even of manslaughter, which in Florida is a killing that has no legal justification.
Maybe people like Zimmerman should be held responsible for provoking the fight that they then fear they'll lose. After all, as writer Adam Weinstein points out, the lesson right now for Floridians is this: "in any altercation, however minor, the easiest way to avoid criminal liability is to kill the counterparty." But you can see the box the jurors might have felt they were in. Even if they believed only part of what Zimmerman told police, they didn't have a charge under Florida law that was a clear fit for what he did that night.
This is our legal system. It doesn't always deliver justice, and this case points to several ways in which Florida's version of law and police work should change.
But what matters most is that Zimmerman was charged with Martin's killing, even if he wasn't convicted. The state was late to indict him, yes, and acted only after a sorry spell of botched police work that may have affected the evidence presented at trial. But Florida did try to hold Zimmerman liable for Martin's death. Martin's family and all his supporters get most of the credit. His father, Tracy Martin, wrote on Twitter this weekend, "God blessed Me & Sybrina with Tray and even in his death I know my baby proud of the fight we along with all of you put up for him God bless." Yes, they did fight, and their battle meant something - meant a great deal - to so many parents of black boys in hoodies, and to the rest of the country, too. Tracy Martin is right to stress that fight for justice at this sorrowful, painful moment. No ill-conceived law, and no verdict, can take that away.
Emily Bazelon is a senior editor at Slate.