The Zimmerman Acquittal Isn't about "Stand Your Ground"

AP Photo/Bay Area News Group, Anda Chu

Yesteday, a jury in Sanford, Florida acquitted George Zimmerman, who had been charged with second-degree murder (with a lesser-included charge of mansluaghter) for shooting and killing the unarmed, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. That Zimmerman was not punished for kiling Martin is certainly disturbing. But it is disturbing for somewhat different reasons than much of the case's media coverage posits. The problem with the Zimmerman acquittal was not Florida's ill-conceived "stand your ground" law. The problem with the acquittal was not a racist and unreasonable jury, either. Rather, the acquittal of Zimmerman reflects something else equally serious and unsettling: the failure of the law in many states to keep up with the realities of America's gun culture. In a society in which many African-Americans are presumed to be criminals and large numbers of people carry concealed deadly weapons, some ways of defining self-defense (even if they do not entail a right to stand one's ground) may no longer be workable.

Although some media reports continue to assert that Florida's infamous "stand your ground" law was "central to Zimmerman’s defense" during the trial, the defendant's team didn't even invoke it; Zimmerman's defense involved just standard self-defense. Under Florida law, the fact that Zimmerman initiated the conflict with Martin did not foreclose a self-defense claim if Zimmeran "reasonably believe[d] that he...[wa]s in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he...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."

This was the basis for Zimmerman's defense, and under Florida law it was the state's burden to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. (Intuitively, this may seem like a quirk of Florida law, but the vast majority of states place the burden of proof on the state to disprove a claim of self-defense.)

Having not watched every second of the trial, I am not prepared to say that the jury got it right. But I do think that on its face the jury's verdict wasn't unreasonable. It is far from obvious that the prosecution (which was unable to even articulate a coherent narrative of the night's events to counter Zimmerman's) met its burden of disproving Zimmerman's claim of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. That it failed to reach a guilty verdict cannot be seen as evidence of white supremacy on the part of the jury.

To be clear, this doesn't mean that race didn't play a major role in the case. Trayvon Martin, guilty of nothing but walking on the street in a hoodie, was certainly killed because of racial profiling. And it is entirely possible that a trial of a poor African American killing a white man in similar circumstances would have played out differently (although the problem is not that the jury's acquittal of Zimmerman was unreasonable but that a poor African-American man would have been much less likely to receive a fair trial, particularly assuming he could not afford to hire his own counsel). It's easy to imagine a counterfactual case where a mostly white jury would have been less willing to credit a plausible self-defense claim if it came from an young African American man than a white man. To argue that the jury's verdict wasn't obviously wrong as a matter of law is not to argue that persistent racial inequities aren't relevant to the case in a number of ways.

But it is important not to lose sight of something else: the inadequacy of the law in most states to deal with America's gun culture. Carrying a deadly weapon in public should carry unique responsibilities. In most cases someone with a gun should not be able to escape culpability if he initiates a conflict with someone unarmed and the other party ends up getting shot and killed. Under the current law in many states, people threatened by armed people have few good options, because fighting back might create a license to kill. As the New Yorker's Amy Davidson puts it, "I still don't understand what Trayvon was supposed to do." Unless the law is changed to deal with the large number of people carrying concealed guns, there will be more tragic and unnecessary deaths of innocent people like Trayvon Martin for which nobody is legally culpable. And to make claims of self-defense easier to bring, as Florida and more than 20 other states have done, is moving in precisely the wrong direction. And, even more importantly, no matter how self-defense laws are structured the extremely unusual American practice of allowing large number of citizens to carry concealed weapons leads to many unecessary deaths. (All 50 states, it's worth noting, permit concealed carry.) Cases like the killing of Martin should compel reconsideration of the lack of significant gun control in the United States, but for whatever reason this isn't the lesson that most legislators are likely to draw.

Comments

The problem with the acquittal was not a racist and unreasonable jury, either.

Just a jury of Sanford residents who later must return to their community with the "right" verdict, and if they didn't, would be spending the rest of their lives (should they choose to remain in Sanford) wondering when white supremacists would catch up to them.

One wonders why Angela Corey didn't ask for a change of venue -- to Maine or Oregon.

---------------

And oh, by the way, those white supremacists donated $300,000 to George Zimmerman's legal defense fund. Maybe he can buy a ticket to his mother's home country, Peru, when the state of Florida returns to him his gun and passport.

KarenJ: Just so you know, Maine and Oregon are not in Florida...

Well, duh. That's my point. It'd take getting that far away for anything resembling objectivity or anonymity from/for the jurors to be achieved.

Unfortunately for justice in this case, it was a state case and the jurors had to answer to their neighbors, peers, and white supremacists as well as the court.

"Cases like the killing of Martin should compel reconsideration of the lack of significant gun control in the United States, but for whatever reason this isn't the lesson that most legislators are likely to draw."

reasons:

* gridlocked Congress that can't even pass a background check for Internet gun purchases

* massive gun lobby

* American gun fetish

* everything is just fine

From the jury instructions, page 12:

If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in anyplace where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand hisground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it wasnecessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to preventthe commission of a forcible felony.

Obviously stand your ground was important to the judge, and this paragraph defined the limits of what the jury could consider. Florida is a shoot first, shoot to kill state, the jury was obligated to ground their decision in that fact.

You misunderstand the law. Under common law, a person must retreat when faced with less than deadly force. If there is no retreat possible, then the person can engage in lethal self-defense.

Stand your ground law -- in Florida -- takes away the duty to retreat.

Under common law, if an assailant jumps out of the bushes and calls me a name, I cannot shoot him if I can run away. If I am n a blind alley and assailant jumps out at me and threatens me and uses force to keep me in the alley or blocks my escape, then no retreat is possible and I can use deadly force.

Under Florida's new law, I NEVER have to look to retreat. If I think someone is threatening me (and a jury believes it is reasonable that I feel that way), then I can anyone down.

Check it out
http://www.tampabay.com/news/publicsafety/crime/florida-stand-your-ground-law-yields-some-shocking-outcomes-depending-on/1233133

Thank you for your comment. If only the US could have a sensible discussion instead of partisan politics that distort what you wrote. Important to point out the "stand your ground" law was produced by the Republican legislative body ALEC and passed in a number of Republican controlled states. The juror who said Zimmerman's life was clearly in danger seemed to equate an adult carrying a concealed gun with an unarmed teenager near his home. This is only part of the revolution that is remaking the US by ALEC laws.

Thank you for your comment. If only the US could have a sensible discussion instead of partisan politics that distort what you wrote. Important to point out the "stand your ground" law was produced by the Republican legislative body ALEC and passed in a number of Republican controlled states. The juror who said Zimmerman's life was clearly in danger seemed to equate an adult carrying a concealed gun with an unarmed teenager near his home. This is only part of the revolution that is remaking the US by ALEC laws.

Lynchings In America Are Now Called "Stand Your Ground In Self Defense" http://wp.me/p1Jt6N-19n

I think the jury ended up with the right verdict, there was clear 'reasonable doubt'. However, it does not mean that there should not be consequences for JZ's actions: I'm sure that the family of the victim will sue him 'OJ-Style' and take everything he owns and will own in future for his decisions to follow TvM, get in a confrontation, and carry a gun. What would have happened if he would have carried pepper spray instead?

Nicely stated, particularly the gun control point of the last paragraph that I wish had been up top. HOWEVER I disagree that stand your ground had no effect. It necessarily made its way into the jury instruction as the Florida definition of self-defense: "real. If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in anyplace where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to preventthe commission of a forcible felony." http://www.scribd.com/doc/153431863/George-Zimmerman-Jury-Instructions Stand your ground may also resurface as a defense to a wrongful death civil claim.

"Cases like the killing of Martin should compel reconsideration of the lack of significant gun control in the United States..."

I guess the "should" gets Lemieux off the hook, but this bland moralism is inexcusably out of touch with reality of never-going-to-happen.

"...was certainly killed because of racial profiling."
Given what evidence? Easy to chastise the jury for not being as omniscient as the author, but they had a different job to do. The author's job is to foment emotion; as such facts are merely inconveniences. Unlike the omniscient author, the jury is obligated to deal with facts.

There were perhaps over 100 Zimmerman tapes and only a few were allowed in court when he called the police and used racial slurs. He says he is following one of them or words to that effect. Clearly he was using racial profiling and had been doing this for a long time.

...records released last Thursday by the FBI reveal that interviews with 35 people involved with Zimmerman, including current and former co-workers, neighbors and an ex-girlfriend, yielded no evidence that racial bias was a motivating factor.

Dang pesky facts! Evidence can be dismissed; it is feelings that count! (Seriously, if you sincerely believe in your position, don't let any facts get in the way of the emotion that underpins your venom.)

Sorry for you. The trial was on television. His comments were allowed on at least two tapes. The juror was questioned, but she said everyone talks like that where she lives. Racial profiling pure and simple.

Exactly what comments (quotes are nice) on two tapes? And not either doctored NBC-ed tapes, or paraphrases from the NYT. The FBI and DOJ have been desperately digging for ANY evidence so Zimmerman can be charged with anything -- you may be able to help them out! :-)

People accusing Zimmerman of racial bias are extremely allergic to producing any actual quotes from the trial.

Does Scoot Lemieux thinks that Roderick Scott shouldn't have been acquitted under self-defense. You know, the guy who left his house with a gun, actually DID initiate a confrontation with unarmed teens ACROSS the street, and shot one of them dead, before the other guy had even laid a hand on him. And Roderick Scott arguably HAD the ability to retreat, unlike Zimmerman who was on his back with Trayvon on top.

By the way, Roderick Scott was black, the teen he shot, Christopher Cervini, was 17-year old, unarmed and white. Where's all the outcry that "Roderick Scott killed a CHILD" or "he should have stayed in his HOUSE"? Where're all the blog posts drumming up outrage by linking to a photo of Cervini's corpse (paging Josh Marshall).

Conservatives *supported* Roderick Scott and I haven't heard liberals vilify him as a child-killing monster. Far as I know, he's not in hiding or deluged with death threats.

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