An overwhelming number of people were appalled by the death of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman–his killer.
I like most of you expected a guilty verdict on Saturday (July 14, 2013) even though my experience told me that assumptions of this nature are often times frustrated given the nature of a country with a long tumultuous racial history which has never received therapy for itself. How could a person, who is walking through a neighborhood minding his own business, be killed and justice not served on the perpetrator? Some blame it on racism, the “Stand Your Ground” (SYG) law, or on prosecutorial incompetence. Those claims may be justifiable, but in my opinion the context surrounding the events was murkier than it appeared.
These questions and others need clarification. I provide insight and amplification on a number of them from a compilation of reports gathered from the Internet. I end with my own recommendations.
What was the original intent of the SYG?
What was the original intent of SYG and was it misused? After heavy lobbying by the National Rifle Association, the Florida legislature passed the bill in April 2005. It was intended to extend the right of self-defense that people had in their homes to places like hotel rooms, trailers and cars.1
Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala), who originally wrote SYG law, stated that “the original intent of the law was to protect people defending themselves, not when pursuing and confronting other people”. Zimmerman pursued Martin and therefore should not have been covered under SYG. Judith Scully, who is the William Reese Smith Jr., Distinguished Professor at Stetson Law, agreed that, for the law to apply, you have to prove you are the one under attack. 2
‘If you are the person confronting another individual or pursuing another individual then you are not meant to be covered by the “Stand Your Ground” law,’ Scully said.2
Lastly, “Stand Your Ground” is not the actual language used in the state statute. The more appropriate language is “does not have a duty to retreat”.
How then was Zimmerman able to prove that he was not the one pursuing Martin?
Zimmerman’s lawyers claimed Trayvon confronted and attacked their client, knocking him to the ground, striking his head on the pavement and reaching for his gun. Two witnesses gave conflicting stories. Jonathan Good, told the court he saw Trayvon on top of Zimmerman as the two fought; while another, Selma Mora, said that Zimmerman had the upper hand before the fatal shot was fired. Most eye witness testimonies claimed that Martin had the upper hand. Lastly, the screams heard on a 911 call were dubious because the mothers of both Martin and Zimmerman claimed that the cries for help belonged to their son. 3
Were the prosecutor, judge, and jury limited by SYG and other Florida statutes?
With all the ado about SYG, it was never used by Zimmerman’s defense team to exonerate him. This case was clearly about self-defense. In fact, his defense team waived a pre-trial immunity hearing, which may have set him free earlier and barred any future criminal prosecution or civil action against him under provisions of SYG. However, he would have had to prove that he acted justifiably by a preponderance of the evidence whereas with a jury trial the prosecutor would have had to prove that he didn’t. Of course, he chose the latter and it proved in his favor. Should Trayvon’s parents decide to file civil charges (probably a wrongful death suit), Zimmerman still has the option of an immunity hearing in which he would have to convince a judge that he acted justifiably.4
Prosecutors charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder. Specifically, Florida Murder Statute Chapter 782.04, Section (2) states “The unlawful killing of a human being, when perpetrated by any act imminently dangerous to another and evincing a depraved mind regardless of human life, although without any premeditated design to effect the death of any particular individual, is murder in the second degree”.5 In other words, prosecutors will have to prove that when Zimmerman killed Martin he acted with evil intent and with lack of respect for human life. The argument against this charge was that Zimmerman had bruises on the back of his head, which supported his claim of self-defense.3 Without Martin present to defend himself and the witness’s testimonies not in his favor, it was not hard to see how the jury acquitted Zimmerman of second degree murder.
Did the prosecutors not prosecute this case using the best strategy?
Some legal authorities stated that the prosecutors should have charged Zimmerman with manslaughter instead of second degree murder while others stated that they should have played the race card after the jury selection process resulted in an all-white jury. 6 However, the manslaughter charge would not have changed the fact that the case hinged on self-defense. Also, given the explicit instructions by the judge and the lack of evidence on Martin’s behalf, it is unlikely that playing the race card would have changed the verdict.
Did Zimmerman provoke Martin by getting out of his car and approaching him?
It was clear that Zimmerman got out of his car and approached Martin, but Zimmerman’s defense team insisted that Martin provoked the shooting. Under some circumstances, Florida law does allow a person to claim justifiable use of force even if he initially provoked the attack. Let’s assume that Zimmerman provoked the attack and that Martin defended himself and that subsequently Zimmerman tried to escape from Martin without fighting back. If Zimmerman felt that his life was in imminent danger or subject to great bodily harm, under Florida law Chapter 776.041 Section (2), he would have been justified in killing Martin even though he provoked the fight.7 If we assume that this scenario were true, Zimmerman still would have been acquitted of second degree murder.
With Martin left dead and the eye witnesses unable to soundly corroborate the prosecutors’ arguments, it was highly unlikely that Zimmerman would have been found guilty of second degree murder or manslaughter.
Could Martin’s friend, Rachel Jeantel, have corroborated the prosecutors’ arguments?
Rachel Jeanel was the person on the phone with Trayvon Martin seconds before he died. They were very good friends often talking on the phone for many hours each day. From the onset that she was crossed examined by defense attorney, Don West, she appeared agitated and nervous. She appeared to contradict earlier statements that she had made about who was screaming on the phone call. At first she said that it was Trayvon but later she was not sure. If that wasn’t enough, she stated that Trayvon had referred to George Zimmerman as a “creepy-ass cracker” who was following him. This by all reports was not appealing to an all-white jury. After the trial, when asked a question about Rachel, one of the jurors stated that she felt sorry for her because she thought that Rachel felt “inadequate toward everyone because of her education and communication skills [which were inadequate]”.8 If this was how the jurors as a whole felt about Rachel, it is also likely that her testimony was taken with a grain of salt. It is also likely that the prosecution did not prepare her well or that they did not use the time that they had her on the stand to portray a better picture of Trayvon. What the jury was left with was a kid who saw George Zimmerman as a “creepy-ass cracker”.
Will Florida’s SYG law stand up under a Florida Constitutional Challenge?
Florida University law professor, Joseph Little, argued that the ‘Legislature in establishing the immunity hearing, has taken from the courts power invested in them since the state's constitution was written’.
‘The Legislature did not prove an overpowering public necessity for what it did, which the constitution requires,’ he said. ‘I think there's an argument to be made in a civil setting that this immunity should be rendered unconstitutional.’4 Moreover, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder “made an impassioned call to NAACP conveners at its national convention in Orlando to overturn ‘stand your ground’ laws in states across the nation in the wake of George Zimmerman's acquittal in Trayvon Martin's shooting death.
Holder also stated that it’s time to ‘question the law that senselessly expanded the concept of self-defense.’9 However, many observers think that it is not likely to be overturned.
Chris W. Cox, executive director of NRA's Institute for Legislative Action responded to Holder’s statement by stating, ’the Attorney General fails to understand that self-defense is not a concept, it's a fundamental human right.…To send a message that legitimate self-defense is to blame is unconscionable, and demonstrates once again that this administration will exploit tragedies to push their political agenda.’9
Arthur C. Hayhoe, founder of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, opposes the law — but doesn't think it stands a chance of being overturned. ‘No Republican will ever vote against an NRA bill in Florida,’ said Hayhoe, one the state's few vocal gun-control advocates. ‘When it hit the fan in 2005, we did our best to scream and holler that the law was trying to correct a problem that didn't exist....There was never a problem with self-defense in Florida.’9
Florida was the first state to enact the law in April 2005. After the death of Trayvon, Florida Governor Rick Scott convened a special task force to get public opinion about SYG. After listening to public opinion, the task force concluded that the law should not be overturned. Prior to the enactment of the law, persons that were threatened away from their homes were expected to retreat as a first recourse. Additionally, Florida prosecutors and law enforcement officials resisted the law insisting that current laws were sufficient.9
Was this case about race?
Many think that this case was about race. Is the courtroom a microcosm of the nation in which race still matters? For instance, Zimmerman was portrayed as a good guy, who wanted to protect people while Martin the victim, who should have gotten the benefit of the doubt, was not. Police officers even testified on Zimmmerman’s behalf stating that Trayvon’s father told them initially that it was not his son’s voice heard screaming on the 911 call. Tracy Martin, who is Trayvon’s father, has maintained that he was not sure. Defense attorney, Xavier Donaldson, commented that to add insult to injury, the prosecution of the case appeared weak as Richard Mantei, ended closing arguments by stating that ‘one of them is dead, and one of them is a liar’ instead of stating that ‘one person is dead, and the other person is a murderer’. He also let Zimmerman’s defense team get away with portraying Zimmerman as the victim and Martin as the perpetrator of the whole event. In a high profile murder case, the prosecutor is normally more aggressive in establishing the murder’s guilt and tenaciously resists any attempts to portray the victim as being at fault. In this case that may not have happened.10
Will the U.S. Department of Justice prevail with civil charges against George Zimmerman?
The Department of Justice has set up an email address to receive tips from the Sanford community about possible civil rights violations or hate crimes against George Zimmerman. The NAACP and other civil rights and human rights groups are insisting that they file federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder “pledged that the Justice Department would work to ‘alleviate tensions, address community concerns and promote healing’ in response to the case.11
The most likely charge that the DOJ would bring against him would be hate crime charges. About 50 witnesses or so gave testimony at the Zimmerman trial. He was still found not guilty of all charges. Will enough credible witnesses come forth now to prove hate crime violations? I don’t know but based on Holder’s lukewarm pledge, charges against Zimmerman from the DOJ will in all probability not occur.
Outside of the DOJ, President Barack Obama believes that it is time that the country has a dialogue on race issues. However, he has been very timid in this regard.
What can we learn from this tragedy?
There are many lessons to be learned from Trayvon Martin’s death and from George Zimmerman’s trial and acquittal. First, this country has been unable to amicably reconcile the deep racial scares that remain from a tumultuous past. Even though Reconstruction-era laws and subsequent civil rights’ affirmations have allowed progress for many blacks, racial stereotypes continue to denigrate and cause mental, physical, and economic harm to many of them, especially black men.
Young men, who are Trayvon’s age, naturally assert their physicality in their quest to prove their manhood with little regard for mal-intent in the hearts of other men, especially depraved racists. I am not implying that Zimmerman was depraved and/or racist, but certainly he has not avoided the racial scripts that have existed in his life from an early age. For more information about the process of racial scripts, see Racism Learned at an Early Age through a Process Called Racial Scripting by Robert Williams.
Apparently, there are no laws that we can create in this country that will protect young black men from the suspicion and fear of white men, so what can we do given the powder keg that this creates? Instead of acting emotionally, which is the standard course, maybe we should teach our young men how to deescalate conflict of this type. Maybe it should be a normal course of study for them?
Secondly, but only as a last resort, we should teach our young men how to properly defend themselves from physical injury even when the assailant has weapons. If Trayvon had dropped George with one punch as reports suggested and ran instead of getting on top of him as was also suggested, I would not be writing this article. There is no harm in retreating. Retreating is a common defensive strategy.
Thirdly, we must teach our young men laws concerning self-defense and all the stipulations that might arise in criminal and civil proceedings. Knowing the laws might have helped Trayvon make a wiser decision when fighting with Zimmerman.
Fourthly, special interests groups in their quest to extend personal protections lobby squirmy legislators who alter state and federal constitutional laws, even when current laws are appropriate. For example, Florida prosecutors and law enforcement officials did not think that SYG was necessary and that current laws were sufficient. Civil and human rights organizations must do a better job at watching these groups and organizing to align and defend against them.
Let's not be victims. Let’s be proactive instead of reactive!
- New York Post (March 28, 2012). Original intent of 'stand your ground' law gets perverted. http://www.nypost.com/p/news/national/original_intent_of_law_gets_perverted_w39Aa9wvzLJ1JF5TCYo43I#ixzz1qSUKP5Jk
- ABC Action News (March 22, 2012). Trayvon Martin case: Does ‘Stand Your Ground’ apply? http://www.abcactionnews.com/dpp/news/state/trayvon-martin-case-does-stand-your-ground-apply
- The Independent (July 15, 2013). Trayvon Martin killer George Zimmerman is cleared of murder - but civil rights charges are still possible as protests gather across US. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/trayvon-martin-killer-george-zimmerman-is-cleared-of-murder--but-civil-rights-charges-are-still-possible-as-protests-gather-across-us-8708250.html
- National Public Radio (July 15, 2013). 'Stand Your Ground' Laws Under Scrutiny Post-Zimmerman Verdict. http://www.npr.org/blogs/itsallpolitics/2013/07/15/202418599/stand-your-ground-laws-under-scrutiny-post-zimmerman-verdict
- The Florida Senate (2011 Florida Senate). 782.04: Murder. http://www.flsenate.gov/Laws/Statutes/2011/782.04
- CNN (July 17, 2013). Geragos: Incompetent prosecution. http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2013/07/17/geragos-incompetent-prosecution/
- The Florida Senate (2011 Florida Statutes). 776.041: Use of force by aggressor. http://www.flsenate.gov/Laws/Statutes/2011/776.041
- CNN (July 2, 2013). 'Cracker' conveys history of bigotry that still resonates. http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/01/us/zimmerman-trial-cracker/index.html?iid=article_sidebar
- Orlando Sentinel (July 17, 2013). Does repealing 'stand your ground' stand a chance in Florida? http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2013-07-17/news/os-stand-your-ground-repeal-20130717_1_central-florida-trayvon-martin-self-defense
- CNN (July 10, 2013). Zimmerman trial: It's about race. http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/09/opinion/jones-zimmerman-trial/index.html
- Orlando Sentinel (July 16, 2013). George Zimmerman trial coverage: DOJ solicits email tips in Zimmerman civil rights probe. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2013-07-16/news/os-george-zimmerman-doj-investigation_1_george-zimmerman-trayvon-martin-justice-department