Particularly after Charles Blow devoted his column last week to the subject, the so-far unprosecuted shooting of Trayvon Martin has deservedly gotten a lot of attention. For good reason, much of this attention has focused on Florida's odious 2005 revisions to its law of self-defense. It was entirely predictable that changes to the law eliminating the duty to retreat and permitting the use of deadly force if an individual "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" would lead to situations such as the Martin shooting. That is, it was predictable that it would lead to a case in which someone would be getting off scot-free for shooting an unarmed teenager whose only crime appears to be "walking while being African-American in a white suburban neighborhood."
Still, it is important to note that this is not quite a case where a bad statute has compelled a tragically unjust result. To be sure, the Florida self-defense law is terrible. But, nonetheless, the language of the law requires that a perceived threat be "reasonable." To put it mildly, it is far from self-evident that Zimmerman's perception of threat of "death or great bodily harm" was reasonable. Given that 1) Martin was armed only with Skittles, 2) Zimmerman outweighed Martin by about 100 pounds, 3) when Zimmerman encountered Martin the former was in an SUV while the latter was on foot, 4) that Martin was not engaged in any criminal activity when Zimmerman stopped to accost him, and 5) the police specifically told Zimmerman not to engage with Martin, it seems clear that Zimmerman's alleged fear for his life was presumptively unreasonable. Certainly, the police have the discretion to charge him under the language of the statute unless they know something they aren't revealing. Some, but not all Florida judges have held that the statute grants immunity to killers like Zimmerman.
If Zimmerman gets away with killing Martin, it's not just the statute that bears responsibility. It's how Florida's policemen, prosecutors, judges, and juries have constructed its ambiguous language. Many actors will have shared in creating the injustice should the killer of Trayvon Martin go unpunished. And unfortunately, the support that this irrational construction of the statute seems to have will make it more difficult to change the law, no matter how unworkable it proves to be.
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