How To Get Away With Murder: Trayvon Martin And “Stand Your Ground”

on 28 March, 2012

Fallout from the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin has intensified in last few weeks as his killer, George Zimmerman, remains a free man.

On February 26, Martin died from a single gunshot to the chest after being followed by Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch captain. Zimmerman saw Martin, and got out of his car, against the advice of the 911 dispatcher on the line.

These circumstances seem wholly inconsistent with Zimmerman’s argument that the killing was a matter of self defense. Regardless, the local police department were satisfied with this explanation. One month after Martin’s death, no charges have been filed.

How is it that an armed man who chose to get out of a safe, locked car to pursue a stranger on foot can argue self defense? Zimmerman is hiding behind a Florida law regarding the “justifiable use of force,” called a “Stand Your Ground” law.

Florida statute 776.013(3) reads: “A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and 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 or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

Zimmerman’s story is that Martin confronted Zimmerman as he returned to his car, after having lost sight of the teen. According to the Orlando Sentinel, which spoke with local police:

“Trayvon asked Zimmerman if he had a problem. Zimmerman said no and reached for his cell phone, he told police. Trayvon then said, ‘Well, you do now’ or something similar and punched Zimmerman in the nose, according to the account he gave police. Zimmerman fell to the ground and Trayvon got on top of him and began slamming his head into the sidewalk, he told police.”

At least parts of the story are largely supported by the physical evidence. When police arrived, according to their reports, Zimmerman’s back was wet from the grass, and he was bleeding from the nose and from the back of his head. A neighbor has also stated that he saw Martin on top of Zimmerman, hitting him.

Supposing that Zimmerman’s account is true in its entirety — the best-case-scenario for his defense — his self-defense claim still does not fit with Florida’s statute regarding the justifiable use of lethal force.

The law lays out four conditions to be met. Two clearly are – Zimmerman was not engaged in unlawful activity, and he was legally entitled to be where he was. Prong three is unclear – we only have Zimmerman’s word that he was attacked first. The physical evidence, while it doesn’t disprove Zimmerman’s story, also doesn’t rule out the possibility that Zimmerman hit Martin first, only to have the fight turn against him.

Regardless, there’s little doubt that the fourth condition, a belief that the use of force was necessary to prevent death or serious bodily harm, is not met. Zimmerman, a large and fully-grown man, clearly outweighed the 160-lb. teenager. He had a gun, which could have been used as a threat or as a non-lethal bludgeoning weapon. Zimmerman claims he was calling out for help, and we know from the 911 tapes that those shouts could be heard by neighbors (although whether the cries were from Zimmerman or Martin is a matter of contention) — he could have waited for help to arrive. Instead, he shot — and to kill.

Zimmerman’s wounds were minor and superficial. He had no reason to believe that his life was at risk.

Given that the facts are inconsistent with Florida’s exemption, it seems appropriate to prosecute Zimmerman’s for negligent homicide or manslaughter for an unnecessary killing, the offenses which appear on the original police report (although those charges were never actually filed). Even the authors of the law currently protecting Zimmerman agree that he should be charged.

Of course, Zimmerman’s prosecution wouldn’t bring back Trayvon Martin — nor would it be likely to prevent the death of other young men who might find themselves in a similar situation. However, changing Florida’s law itself could make a difference by compelling defendants in future confrontations to act differently

Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law is flawed for three reasons, which helped lead to Martin’s death.

First, even if Zimmerman did have reason to believe that his life was in danger, he could and should have retreated before even considering legal force. The Florida statute removes that obligation. It puts a potential victim’s pride and machismo first.

Second, removing the obligation to retreat before resorting to force puts the defendant at risk, too. Victims in violent situations from muggings to hold-ups are coached to cooperate, attempt escape, and to only resort to physical confrontation when all other options have been exhausted. Had Zimmerman “stood his ground” against an actual armed and dangerous assailant instead of a weaponless teen, it may have been Zimmerman who ended up dead.

Finally, the law makes no mention of the scale of the defendant’s force, saying only that one has the right to “meet force with force” (evoking the adage about fire-fighting techniques). The law therefore draws no distinction between Zimmerman tazing Martin and Zimmerman shooting him. The law should obligate individuals to use only the maximum necessary force to subdue the attacker or to escape.

Unfortunately, these dangerous holes aren’t limited to Florida’s laws alone. “Stand Your Ground” laws exist in 23 states (few go so far as Florida, which explicitly abolishes the “duty to retreat”). Same law, different states — sound familiar? No surprise, the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a group of corporate lobbyists and state legislators, adopted “Stand Your Ground” model legislation at the behest of the National Rifle Association. Variations of that pre-packaged law have since been adopted across the country.

These laws make it too easy to get away with murder. It becomes as simple as killing someone, waiting for the police to show up, then telling them that the other person hit you first. George Zimmerman and “Stand Your Ground” laws both need to get put away.

(Image via)