Columns

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

By: Eric Giunta | Posted: March 22, 2012 3:55 AM
Gary Siplin

Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale | Courtesy: Dave Heller

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 state’s 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 Legislature’s 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 Florida’s criminal statutes that merit legislative reformation?

What happened?

The precise details surrounding the circumstances of young Martin’s 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 father’s 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 isn’t clear who initiated the physical altercation), cries of “Help!” were heard by witnesses (though it isn’t 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 Florida’s “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 Zimmerman’s 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 one’s 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 defendant’s 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 don’t 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 Zimmerman’s “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 Zimmerman’s judge, jury, and executioner. But the facts that are emerging do not seem to bode well for the would-be crime fighter’s case. Martin was unarmed, 11 years Zimmerman’s 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, Martin’s 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 Martin’s innocence) is of Martin defending himself against the aggressions of an overenthusiastic vigilante.

More relevant for purposes of this analysis than Zimmerman’s 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 woman’s 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?

Florida’s 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 Zimmerman’s, and we’re inclined to agree: Zimmerman did not so much stand his ground as he stood within Martin’s. There’s 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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Comments (76)

Bad news
8:50AM MAR 22ND 2012
This isn't a legal "analysis", it's an opinion piece by a guy who just graduated from law school and apparently wants to get a job with Sunshine State News slamming Democrats. This is the most pathetic writing on this site yet...a new bar for stupid. Way to go Sunshine State news. Perhaps you can get some high school students to tell us what they think. The pits.
Guest
7:44PM MAR 23RD 2012
Bad news. This note made me literally split a gut. I love the way you write. Sunshine State News doesn't invite anyone here and is not responsible for content (though they may be deleting offensive commentary). For the most part, the coverage is timely and good for those of us following Florida news.
Bad News
7:58PM MAR 23RD 2012
Guest, it appears that you work for Sunshine State News. Trying to hide with the owners of your operation? Not a very good cover. Hope the gut you split wasn't in 11 volumes.
Guest
10:06PM MAR 23RD 2012
Bad News. I do not work for Sunshine State news and just found. Sorry to disappoint you. Why don't you just vaporize yourself if you don't like it here then? While you are it, just avoid the internet since most of these discussions are open to the public.
Jaime
12:50PM MAR 23RD 2012
You clearly have never been to law school. If you did, you would have known that a significant amount of legal scholarship is produced by current students (NOT EVEN GRADUATED) in law journals - and those students are often quoted by judges, justices, and congressional officers.
Tampa east
5:20PM MAR 23RD 2012
Jamie, nice try, but way off the mark. You are a recent law grad, and as full of yourself as Eric. Wait until you grow up and live in the real world....and not your pathetic bubble about how having a law degree makes you and expert on a specific issue. Eric is clearly not an expert on anything except self promoting himself to his friends! LOL And Eric's publication list is posted where?
Jaime
6:36PM MAR 23RD 2012
You're naivety is showing.

You may have missed the fact that "recent law grads" still practice law and can write on topics.

You also fail to recognize that not all law students are coming straight out from college - some have advanced degrees, work experience, and other relevant information from which to base opinions.

Clearly, you have elitist mentality.

These issues are political, arguable, and subject to change.

An opinion piece on the legal applicability is a fair try as any court argument.
Tamba Bay
7:45PM MAR 23RD 2012
Jamie,
You must be Eric's partner. How nice of you to stick up for him. You are actually quite wrong about a lot of legal facts...but since Eric has decided to keep his mouth shut, you've become the voice piece for his stupidity. By the way, none of us here collect welfare checks. Your sad, simple, conservative mind has run amok. If Eric has an editor, they would tell him to not have his partner do his dirty work.....you are way too obvious. However since you are also not very bright, I would say you are the perfect couple. LOL And why did Eric post that disclaimer? He was afraid he had crossed the line into the practice of law, which he is not eligible to do at this point. Perhaps some time in front of the ethics committee would be a good learning experience. Oh, and you forgot to tell us what journal articles he has written. We'll wait for the list :)
Jaime
8:15PM MAR 23RD 2012
Wooow! You're so brave from behind that monitor. Did you want a medal?

In any case, I'm not "conservative," unless you consider "voluntaryists" who like Lysander Spooner, Murray Rothbard, and Ludwig von Mises "conservative."

Quite wrong about the legal facts? Is that right? I seem to have a legal library at my disposal to look up case law (which I did). Did you as well, or are you just blowing smoke?

For example, the Second District has already held that "fleeing" is not grounds for using the immunity...So Zimmerman should not be covered if we take existing case law and apply it to the apparent facts based on the testimony of Martin's g/f, other witnesses, and the neighbor's 911 call.

I never claimed that he wrote an article for a journal - reread again the above posts.

However, when someone wants to attack:

1. All law students.
2. All recent graduates/new attorneys.
3. Anyone below whatever arbitrary standard qualifies as sufficient to discuss legal issues...

I will take issue with it.

It boggles my mind that 9 Supreme Court justices bicker and argue over what is "the law" but somehow some internet troll has the golden nugget truth about everything any anyone else who disagrees is a moron.

You mad bro?
Guest
10:09PM MAR 23RD 2012
Jamie, with jerks like you in this state as lawyers, no wonder it is going to hell.

You are a rude, arrogant and a jerk.
Beaches
9:53AM MAR 24TH 2012
Good one Guest! These Jamie/Eric characters are a couple of little brats without brains who think very highly of themselves. Jerk is the perfect word for them!
Retired in Florida
8:22PM MAR 23RD 2012
Jamie/Eric appear to have gone over the edge. Wow.
Jaime
8:35PM MAR 23RD 2012
Why? What makes me "over the edge" when these other commenters:

1. Make personal attacks from the get-go
2. Pretend like they know the true "law" but fail to even provide a single case showing why their interpretation is right, and

3. Then use assumptive labels to play it like this has anything to do with "conservatism" or "racism."

Please, tell me your specific complaint.
American Pie
8:40PM MAR 23RD 2012
They are going, going, gone!
Frank
4:04PM MAR 23RD 2012
Perhaps so, but those are typically reviewed by peers prior to publishing, much like my science papers. This commenting blog might be as close as we get here.
Jaime
6:39PM MAR 23RD 2012
You say "peer reviewed" like as if that makes it truth.

There are plenty of "peer reviewed" legal opinions that aren't "the law."

Why don't you send your thoughts to all the members of the FSU law journals.

I bet they would love to hear how "stupid" you think their opinions are. (Unless of course, their opinions already fit your version of what you think the "law" should be.")

I bet you think Eugene Volck's blog musings must be sub-par too because his posts aren't "peer reviewed."
Frank
8:42PM MAR 23RD 2012
I've always preferred to deal with facts and peer-reviewed science rather than political spin. Unfortunately, the reality is in Florida I have had to sometimes deal with those who prefer political spin, voodoo economics, governing by the "Big Lie", curious statutory interpretations and a legislative philosophy of creating law "because we don't like 'em" rather than utilizing common sense, factual science and governing for the public good. My own scientific publications still continue to stand and be cited on their own merits throughout the past 40 years. So yes, I'll take peer-review over novelty and legal insanity.
Palmtreelane
8:17PM MAR 23RD 2012
I think that most of us would suggest that you go back to school and learn to write properly. "like as if that makes it truth" is a sentence?
Jaime
8:26PM MAR 23RD 2012
Is that all you have? Internet grammar complaints (which, the above is a perfectly correct sentence...not exactly Robert Frost, but not incorrect).

I would love to hear something of substance instead of ad hominem attacks on my supposed "intelligence" and "ability to write."

Have any?
Palmtreelane
8:34PM MAR 23RD 2012
No further issues. Your lack of intellect and ability to write say everything we need to know about you.
Guest
10:11PM MAR 23RD 2012
With lawyers like Jamie that in this state, can you now understand the mess we are in?
Jaime
8:36PM MAR 23RD 2012
Oh thank you so much. Please, don't let me disturb your self-rub any more than needed. ( :
Palmtreelane
8:47PM MAR 23RD 2012
Brilliant writing and insightful commentary, as usual. I agree with the others, you have gone over the edge. Cheer up sad chap :)
Guest
11:29PM MAR 23RD 2012
Well said Palmtree.
Jaime
1:40AM MAR 24TH 2012
Bye troll. See you when you have an argument based on logic and facts! Keep your logical fallacy called the "ad hominem" on the rack. It's really boring those of us who are oh so "arrogant" and messing up FL's legal system.
LDouglas
7:04AM MAR 22ND 2012
"....Zimmerman did not so much stand his ground as he stood within Martin’s."

I was glad to see that because it's the same thing I thought after reading this account.

"There’s no reason why Section 776.013 cannot be strengthened by legislative amendment in order to preclude cover by citizen vigilantes."

That's true. Even though it seems the law already precludes citizen vigilantes, it could be made more clear.

Otherwise, nice job laying it out for us Mr. Giunta. IMO, if you keep it more about the law (which in this case- the seemingly misuse of the law) or strengthening it, and less about the political differences of the staunchest Democrats or leftists, the less" ammo" you will give them to fight it.

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