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A Legal Analysis: Trayvon Martin Tragedy Has Nothing to Do with 'Stand Your Ground'

March 21, 2012 - 7:00pm

The recent shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by volunteer crime-watcher George Zimmerman in Seminole County has Florida Democrats in a furor, calling for a re-examination or repeal of the states controversial Stand Your Ground statute.

Given the overwhelming public concerns that have been raised ... I write to respectfully request that the Florida House of Representatives conduct hearings in this matter of community safety and human rights, wrote House Minority Leader-designate Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, on Wednesday, in a letter to Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park.

Rep. Mia Jones, R-Jacksonville, who chairs the Legislatures Black Caucus, has gone even further: "For me, the right answer for 'Stand Your Ground' is to repeal it. ... I don't think this is a society that we want to live in, she told a press conference on Tuesday.

Are these the exaggerated hysterics of leftist Utopians driven to read humanitarian crises into every sign of human imperfection, or are there real flaws in Floridas criminal statutes that merit legislative reformation?

What happened?

The precise details surrounding the circumstances of young Martins tragic death at the hands of Zimmerman have yet to be entirely fleshed out while investigations by both the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division are still pending. Even so, a few facts are beyond dispute.

Trayvon Martin, a North Miami native, was watching basketball at his fathers home in Sanford the night of Feb. 26. During the halftime break, he walked to a gas station to pick up some candy and an iced tea.

Neighborhood crime-watcher Gregory Zimmerman, legally carrying a 9mm semi-automatic pistol, was patrolling in his SUV when he spotted Martin walking through the neighborhood on his return home from the gas station. Zimmerman called the police to report Martin, telling the dispatcher Martin looked like a real suspicious guy.

This guy looks like he's up to no good or he's on drugs or something," Zimmerman told the dispatcher. "It's raining, and he's just walking around looking about. (The neighborhood reportedly is a magnet for burglaries, at least a few of which Zimmerman had been instrumental in thwarting.)

But Zimmerman did more than just report a supposedly suspicious-looking Martin to police. He followed him through the neighborhood, apparently getting out of his car to chase him on foot, despite being warned not to by the police dispatcher.

What happened next is uncertain: Martin and Zimmerman ended up wrestling on the ground (though it isnt clear who initiated the physical altercation), cries of Help! were heard by witnesses (though it isnt clear which of the two men made the shout), and the tussle concluded with Zimmerman killing Martin with a single gunshot to his chest.

Zimmerman has not been arrested, nor has he been charged with any crime. He insists that he killed Martin in self-defense, and has invoked Floridas Stand Your Ground statute to claim immunity from having to go to trial for the homicide.

What Is 'Stand Your Ground'?

Before discussing the possible merits of Zimmermans defenses, it is important to understand just what legal protections he is claiming for himself.

Zimmerman insists that his actions in this case constitute justifiable self-defense. In particular, he has invoked Section 776.013 of the Florida Statutes, subsection 3, popularly known as the Stand Your Ground statute:

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.

Section 776.032 of the Statutes further stipulates that anyone employing justifiable force in these circumstances is immune from any criminal prosecution or civil action for the use of such force, unless the person against whom force was used is a law enforcement officer.

This statute has been in effect since 2005. Prior to that, Florida criminal law followed that of most other states: Victims of forcible felonies had a duty to retreat from their attackers if they could do so safely; the only time such a duty did not attach was when one was being attacked within ones dwelling, residence, or vehicle. The 2005 statute abolishes this duty and imposes the sole limitation that one may only resort to deadly force when he reasonably believes such is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm, or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

In our legal system, these phrases each carry specific meanings:

  • First, the person invoking the Stand Your Ground defense must do more than simply convince a jury that his belief in the necessity of employment of deadly force is honest and sincere. He must demonstrate, by a preponderance (i.e., greater weight) of evidence, that his belief was reasonable. In determining whether such a belief is reasonable, courts or arresting police officers employ what is called an objective test --i.e., they determine what a reasonable person in the defendants place would have believed was necessary to prevent the serious harm.
  • What exactly constitutes great bodily harm is a little ambiguous. Minor scratches and scars dont qualify, but amputations and severe mutilations almost certainly do. The standard was articulated by the Florida Supreme Court in the 1974 case Owens v. State: Great bodily harm defines itself and means great as distinguished from slight, trivial, minor, or moderate harm, and as such does not include mere bruises as are likely to be inflicted in a simple assault and battery. ... Whether the evidence describing such harm or injury is within the meaning of the statute ... is generally a question of fact for the jury."
  • Finally, Section 776.08 of the Florida Statutes defines forcible felonies as any ... felony which involves the use or threat of physical force or violence against any individual.

Thus, in order for Zimmermans Stand Your Ground claim to prevail, he will need to convince a jury, by a preponderance of the evidence (a much lower standard than the famous beyond a reasonable doubt), that a reasonable person in his position would have believed that deadly force was necessary to defend himself against Martin, or that a reasonable person would have believed that deadly force was necessary to prevent Martin from committing a felony that involved the use or threat of physical force against an individual.

Will Zimmerman Prevail?

There are too many details that remain unknown to the public, or whose publicity is contradictory, for us to presume to play the role of Zimmermans judge, jury, and executioner. But the facts that are emerging do not seem to bode well for the would-be crime fighters case. Martin was unarmed, 11 years Zimmermans junior, and 100 pounds lighter than he is; and it is clear that Martin was not doing anything illegal.

Zimmerman appears to have chased Martin on foot after police dispatch expressly told him not to. At least one witness reports having heard Martin (not Zimmerman) cry for help.

Finally, Martins girlfriend is publicly corroborating this scenario based on her phone conversation with Martin just seconds before Zimmerman approached. The credible picture she paints (consistent with the witness testimony and what we indisputably know to be Martins innocence) is of Martin defending himself against the aggressions of an overenthusiastic vigilante.

More relevant for purposes of this analysis than Zimmermans legal culpability is the utter impropriety of Democratic politicians capitalizing on this non-representative tragedy in order to further advance a leftist agenda hostile to the human rights they claim to champion.

Stand Your Ground is nothing other than the political realization of a man or a womans human right to defend their dignity against violent attackers. Imposing on victims a state-invented duty to make on-the-spot calculations of whether it is safe to retreat imposes on them a burden that instead ought to be borne by their aggressors.

Talk of outright repeal is all the more reprehensible considering that the same leftists who are now raising that specter also tend to be proponents of draconian gun-control laws that leave the innocent and law-abiding at the mercy of the criminally armed.

We never hear Democrats suggest that police agencies ought to be abolished just because some officers abuse their powers and engage in police brutality, with often fatal consequences. Why must all citizens suffer for the abuses of the occasional (and statistically very rare) vigilante who might act recklessly under cover of law, while among our police officers we must discriminate between the good and the bad?

Floridas criminal statutes are certainly not above criticism. The original legislative sponsors of Stand Your Ground, former Sen. Durell Peaden, R-Crestview, and current Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, have vehemently insisted that their statute was never intended to apply to cases such as Zimmermans, and were inclined to agree: Zimmerman did not so much stand his ground as he stood within Martins. Theres no reason Section 776.013 cannot be strengthened by legislative amendment in order to preclude cover by citizen vigilantes.

But to the extent the laws need correcting, it is not in the direction of disarming the innocent and leaving them at the mercy of the violent.

Eric Giunta wrote this analysis piece especially for Sunshine State News. Giunta recently graduated from Florida State University College of Law, where he served as president of that school's chapter of the nation's premier fellowship of conservative and libertarian law students. He is sitting for the Florida Bar examination. The information contained in this article does not constitute legal advice nor is it intended to constitute legal advice.


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