Following the murder of Trayvon Martin last month near Orlando, much has been made of the role of race in the killing, the "threat" that Trayvon could have posed, and the mindset of George Zimmerman. I want to take a closer look at the Florida law that allowed Zimmerman to walk free in the first place: the "stand-your-ground" law, which exists in some form in 31 states. A stand-your-ground law states that a person may use deadly force in self-defense when there is reasonable belief of a threat, without an obligation to retreat first. It goes further than the "castle doctrine" laws that allow a person to protect themselves when their home is attacked, by stating that a person can defend themselves wherever they happen to legally be.
The Florida statute, passed in 2005, states that:
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.
Not surprisingly, self-defense claims have tripled in Florida since the law was enacted. Florida averaged 12 “justifiable homicide” deaths a year from 2000-2004. After “Stand your Ground” was passed in 2005, the number of “justifiable” deaths has almost tripled to an average of 35 a year, an increase of 283% from 2005-2010. Even more striking, almost all of those killed were unarmed.
Even the Republican state representative who wrote Florida's law said that he did not mean it to cover killings such as the Trayvon Martin case. Rep. Dennis Baxley said that he supports moves to have a grand jury determine whether Zimmerman should be charged. “Mr. Zimmerman's unnecessary pursuit and confrontation of Trayvon Martin elevated the prospect of a violent episode and does not seem to be an act of self-defense... There is no protection in the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law for anyone who pursues and confronts people.”
Here's another thought. Under this law, might it have been Trayvon Martin who had the right to stand his ground? It is undisputed that George Zimmerman followed Martin, and Martin's girlfriend, who was on the phone with him at the time, has stated that he was concerned about being followed and eventually broke into a run to try to get away from Zimmerman. If, as one witness claims, he was slamming Zimmerman's head into the sidewalk, perhaps it was because he saw Zimmerman's gun and was acting in self-defense - legally - trying to prevent Zimmerman from using the weapon against him. That turns what was thought to be a pro-Zimmerman account of events on its head.
Angela Corey, the state attorney in charge of determining whether or not to pursue charges against Zimmerman, has been working on the case since March 23. She also says she may well make the decision herself instead of convening a grand jury. In non-capital cases in Florida, the decision to file charges is routinely made by prosecutors. But in controversial cases, prosecutors often defer to a grand jury, leaving the most highly-charged decisions in the hands of private citizens. Given the conflicting accounts and lack of witnesses, and the level of anger surrounding the case, my greatest fear, if charges are not filed, is that rioting will break out in Florida and around the country the likes of which haven't been seen since the 1992 Los Angeles riots. And even more importantly, that a murderer will have gone scot-free.