Ever since the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, by George Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watchman who pursued him on foot, much of the commentary has revolved around whether Florida’s controversial ‘Stand Your Ground’ law played a role in the tragedy.
The law is an extension fo the “Castle Doctrine” which allows people to defend themselves with deadly force against a home intruder.
Stand Your Ground laws empower citizens to defend themselves–using deadly force–if they reasonably believe their life or the lives of others are in danger, or to prevent a forcible felony.
One Gawker writer called the law “a roving murder bubble.” Emily Bazelon of Slate, has suggested that the facts we know about suggest that Trayvon Martin may have had more reason to claim self-defence.
You can read the entire text of the Florida law on Wikipedia, here.
776.012 Use of force in defence of person.—…… a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if:
(1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony; or…. .(3) 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.
776.041 Use of force by aggressor. —The justification described in the preceding sections of this chapter is not available to a person who: ….
(2) Initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself, unless:
(a) Such force is so great that the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant; or(b) In good faith, the person withdraws from physical contact with the assailant and indicates clearly to the assailant that he or she desires to withdraw and terminate the use of force, but the assailant continues or resumes the use of force.
So what does that mean in this case?
First, it should be mentioned that there is much that seems unclear from the police report and the evidence at hand. Zimmerman’s full testimony has not been heard. We know that Zimmerman called 911 to report Martin’s presence on the street as suspicious. We know that against the dispatcher’s instruction, Zimmerman pursued Martin, the two of them got into some kind of fight–Zimmerman had grass stains on his back and blood on the back of his head, but we know of no visit to a hospital for these injuries. At some point Zimmerman shot Martin, killing him.
Zimmerman, according to CNN, may have muttered “f#&cking coons” into the phone to a 911 dispatcher while pursuing Martin. Martin may may have gotten a decisive upper-hand in their confrontation, according to one eyewitness in this Fox report.
Yesterday, former Florida Governor, Jeb Bush said he didn’t believe the Stand Your Ground law applied in the Trayvon Martin case: “This law does not apply to this particular circumstance… Stand your ground means stand your ground. It doesn’t mean chase after somebody who’s turned their back.”
Zimmerman claimed that he shot Trayvon Martin in self-defence, and the Sanford police seem to have accepted that assertion, labelling the case a justifiable homicide.
But the 911 tapes reveal that when Zimmerman decided to pursue Martin, it was based only on the fact that Martin looked “suspicious” and had something in his hand. (It turned out to be a can of iced tea.)
Unless Zimmerman turned back to his truck and retreated from his pursuit, and Martin then jumped him from behind that would mean, that Stand Your Ground likely apply to Zimmerman since he “initially provoked the use of force against himself.”
The law still wouldn’t apply to Zimmerman if he got into some kind of fistfight with Martin, and he lost the upper hand. Police reports say that Zimmerman had grass stains on the back of his shirt, and blood on the back of his head after the confrontation. Zimmerman again would have been the one initiating it by getting out of his car and pursuing Martin aggressively.
If Martin somehow was aware of Zimmerman’s gun, the Stand Your Ground law may have applied to him, as any reasonable person would assume that a man aggressively chasing you with a gun and initiating a fight may have the intention of killing you.
In other words, if police arrived on the scene and Zimmerman was dead, Martin may have been justified under Stand Your Ground.
It is possible that even if the Stand Your Ground law does not apply to Zimmerman in these circumstances, its existence discourages police from charging someone with murder when they’ve claimed self-defence, since a Stand Your Ground defence puts the burden on prosecutors to prove that a person did not retreat and clearly communicate their intentions to cease a conflict, or that they did initially provoke the use of force against themselves.
It is also possible that a person with a murderous intentions could have known about the law and felt empowered to pursue a confrontation with confidence that he wouldn’t be charged with murder if there was any reasonable way he could claim self-defence.
Unless new facts come to light, it does seem that Jeb Bush has a point: the Stand Your Ground law does not seem to apply to George Zimmerman.
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