The media circus surrounding the tragic death of Trayvon Martin has largely focused on Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. That focus is misplaced.
Stand Your Ground, or SYG, provides certain narrow protections for individuals who use deadly force in self-defense, but the basic standards for whether the use of deadly force is justified are not changed by the SYG law, nor are the penalties and liabilities for the unjustified use of deadly force.
In the Trayvon Martin case, the specific part of the law that has applied so far is a provision that a person claiming self-defense should not be arrested unless there is some clear evidence that self-defense was not the motive. In this case, George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot Martin, was beaten and bloody with grass stains and mud on his clothes when police arrived. Zimmerman told them he had turned around and was going back to his vehicle when he was attacked by Martin. There was nothing to suggest Zimmerman was lying then, nor has any new evidence surfaced indicating that his story was not true.
Martin’s girlfriend, who was talking to Martin on the phone just prior to the shooting, says she told him to run away, yet another witness said he saw Martin straddling Zimmerman and beating him. He said that Zimmerman was calling out for help.
Stand Your Ground laws were developed in response to state laws that have been seriously eroding self-defense rights over the past several decades. In many states, laws had shifted to a “guilty until proven innocent” standard for self-defense. People who had just been involved in the most traumatic event of their lives were treated as criminals until they could prove in court that their actions were justified.
Some prosecutors and judges have stretched existing legal requirements that a person try to avoid using deadly force into a “duty to retreat.” They suggest that if there was ever any opportunity for the victim of an assault to run away, that the use of deadly force was not justified. Even after successfully proving self-defense in criminal court, people have been subjected to civil suits by the “victims” or their families.
SYG laws address these issues in three ways:
Placing the burden of proof on police and prosecutors and rejecting automatic assumptions causing a victim to be treated like a criminal.
Making it clear that when a person is threatened with death or serious bodily harm they can respond with deadly force without having to try to run or evade first.
That a person who uses deadly force in a legally justified manner may not be sued for such actions.
No provision of SYG laws gives a person a “license to kill,” nor absolves them from the requirement that their actions meet what is known as the “reasonable person standard.” The question for jurors is, would a reasonable person in this situation react as the person in question did? Were their actions reasonable under the circumstances? If not, the event rightly moves into the realm of assault, manslaughter or murder.
The case of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin is going to a grand jury, and I won’t speculate here how it will turn out. A key consideration will undoubtedly be whether it was reasonable for Zimmerman to have started following Martin in the first place. If the grand jury does not think this action was reasonable, everything that happened thereafter is tainted by that initial act of instigation, and George Zimmerman is in trouble.
If, on the other hand, the grand jury concludes that Martin was justified in trying to see what this young man was doing wandering the neighborhood at, it is likely that his subsequent actions will be considered reasonable as well – barring some significant revelation in the case.
No matter what the outcome in the grand jury or in a subsequent trial, the SYG law did not lead to Trayvon Martin’s death. No one knows why George Zimmerman thought Trayvon Martin was “suspicious” when he saw him walking through the neighborhood. Zimmerman himself may not really know.
It might have been that Martin was black – as so many keep insisting – but it could just as easily be that it was so unusual for anyone to be about in that neighborhood at such an hour. If George Zimmerman was – as some have suggested – a deranged racist bent on homicide and relying on Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law to shield him from prosecution, he’s likely to be seriously disappointed.
On its face, this appears to be a tragic case of an overzealous do-gooder and a young man with a chip on his shoulder coming together in just the wrong way. It is sad and frustrating whenever a promising young person’s life is cut short, but disarming the law-abiding public and criminalizing self-defense are not reasonable responses to this tragedy.