07/08/2013 09:20 am ET Updated Sep 07, 2013

Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Zimmerman vs. Snowden

This past week - I found myself thinking a lot about justice and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty under U.S. law.

The two cases that are are my mind are those of armed neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman, and NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

What's interesting to me is that in both cases -- neither of the central figures in the case make any claim that they didn't do what they're being accused of. Instead, both of them claim that the situation they found themselves in forced them to take action that they are now being charged with.

Now, you may have strong feelings about the cases. Certainly it seems as if Zimmerman, a failed police cadet who instead took up arms and patrolled his neighborhood -- calling 911 46 times between August 2004 up to Travon Martin's death -- would easily fit the requirement for premeditation. But that law in this case says he's innocent until he's proven guilty and found so by a court of law.

To win conviction on second-degree murder, the prosecution has to show that the death was caused by a criminal act "demonstrating a depraved mind without regard for human life." A second-degree murder conviction would require that Zimmerman was profiling Martin -- a charge that the prosecution is struggling to prove. No matter that Trayvon Martin was unarmed, save a bag of Skittles, and clearly the smaller man in the struggle that took his life. The law says that the charges must be more than 'obvious' -- but instead proven. That's the law of the land. And so, a jury will decide.

The family's attorney, Benjamin Crump, described the case as clear cut as he explained to the jury: "there are two important facts in this case: No. 1: George Zimmerman was a grown man with a gun, and No. 2: Trayvon Martin was a minor who had no blood on his hands. Literally no blood on his hands. ... We believe that the evidence is overwhelming to hold George Zimmerman accountable for killing Trayvon Martin."

Prosecutor John Guy's first words to jurors recounted what Zimmerman told a police dispatcher in a call shortly before the fatal confrontation with Martin: "Fucking punks. These assholes. They always get away."

But the defense, of course, takes a dramatically different point of view.

The story defense attorney Don West told jurors was that Zimmerman was being viciously attacked when he shot Martin. He claims that Zimmerman was sucker-punched by Martin and then pounded Zimmerman's head into the concrete sidewalk.

"He had just taken tremendous blows to his face, tremendous blows to his head," said West, showing photos of Zimmerman's head taken after the shooting.

So, is he guilty or innocent? I'm sure you have a strong feeling either way -- but our justice system determines that only after the defense rests will the Jury be asked to leave the court room and render a verdict.

I find it frustrating, but also the basis of justice.

Which brings me to Snowden.

In the past few weeks, I've witnessed strong debates about his actions, his motivations, his criminality. Is he a whistle blower or a traitor? Is he protecting our rights as citizens -- exposing an overreaching and unconstitutional federal government program, or hacker and trouble maker who's endangering Americans around the world? Much as with the Zimmerman trial, there are strong feelings on both sides and the convictions that each point of view is right beyond question.

But here's where the cases diverge.

In a statement posted on WikiLeaks' website, Snowden wrote: "The Obama administration has now adopted the strategy of using citizenship as a weapon. Although I am convicted of nothing, it has unilaterally revoked my passport, leaving me a stateless person. Without any judicial order, the administration now seeks to stop me from exercising a basic right. A right that belongs to everybody. The right to seek asylum."

According to, "Under current law, U.S. citizens by birth or naturalization lose U.S. nationality only if they voluntarily engage in an 'expatriating act.' They must also have the intention to give up U.S. citizenship."

According to, "Many countries punish political enemies by stripping them of their nationality." A few notorious examples include:

• In 1926, Italy began revoking the citizenship of individuals "unworthy of Italian citizenship."
• In 1935, the infamous "Nuremburg laws" stripped German Jews of their German nationality.
• Until the 1980s, the Soviet Union often revoked Soviet citizenship from political dissidents.

But now the U.S. position could be changing.

Senator Joseph Lieberman and Congressman Charles Dent have a proposal that was originally tucked into the 2012 highway authorization bill. Under their proposal if you are found to be "engaging in, or purposefully or materially supporting, hostilities" the government could nullify your U.S. citizenship and render you stateless. No doubt, this proposal will surface again.

But the question raised is this one -- in the absence of this or another law, what legal right does the U.S. have for stripping a citizen of their passport based on crimes alleged but not yet adjudicated?

Snowden's claim is that PRISM is an unconstitutional surveillance project or program that snoops on phone and internet traffic. Snowden's claim is that this kind of spying is in direct contravention of the Geneva Convention. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers. Clearly he broke the law, but in the end his basis -- as he presents it -- is one based on trying to protect our privacy and our rights.

So, is he a citizen accused of a crime, or a traitor who's had their citizenship taken from them without due process?

"I'm neither traitor nor hero. I'm an American," said Snowden. But today, it's not clear that he will remain an American for much longer.