Stand Your Ground

What is it, what is the controversy, and what role did it play in the Zimmerman case?

debate-misses-pointOut of the anguish and passionate debates about the Zimmerman case, so-called “stand your ground” laws have commanded the nation’s attention. Suddenly, talking heads in the media have espoused their “expertise” as to how this confusing Florida law has affected the case—or how it hasn’t. Left in the dust is the rest of America, straining to understand this confusing law for themselves. Adding to the frenzy, the laws have been recently decried by government officials such as Attorney General Eric Holder, and even celebrities like Stevie Wonder who has personally vowed to never play in any state that has such laws. A little clarity would be refreshing.

Generally speaking, self-defense laws have existed in our common law since before the founding of the country. To claim self-defense, the one claiming it must establish that he or she had a reasonable fear of imminent deadly force or serious bodily harm. A person would also have to demonstrate that he or she did not have a safe opportunity to retreat. However, 16 states have recently enacted laws that specifically allow someone to “stand their ground” when defending themselves against deadly force or serious bodily harm, regardless of the opportunity to retreat. One of the states which has modified the common law rule is Florida. The critics of such laws essentially allow people to choose to kill or seriously injure someone rather than take the opportunity to escape. They say it might be an “excuse” to murder. These laws enable a person to use this defense regardless of where they are or regardless of what options they have.

With the controversial “stand your ground” law as a background, the tragic events took place in the Zimmerman case. This case was the type of case the critics of “stand your ground” laws feared. An unarmed, young black teenaged-male, Trayvon Martin, was shot dead. Martin was profiled and targeted as a suspicious black male. Complicating the case was the lack of eyewitnesses and the conflicting stories of the witnesses that were produced. The shooter was George Zimmerman, a white male of Hispanic ethnicity. Zimmerman is heard describing Martin as “suspicious” and describing frustration at “f**king punks” that get away. Who started it, and exactly what happened is not clear. The only thing that is clear is that the verdict was “not guilty.”

From the verdict forward there emerged a slew of reports blaming Florida’s “stand your ground” law. The case became a battleground between gun rights advocates and those who would prefer more gun regulation. The debate misses the point. What role did this law really play in this particular case?

If the jury believed Zimmerman’s story that Trayvon Martin was the instigator, and that Zimmerman was pinned to the ground sustaining potentially deadly force, then “stand your ground” did not affect the outcome of the case. Under Zimmerman’s version of events, he essentially had no “safe opportunity to retreat.” And, therefore, was justified in using deadly force—even under traditional self-defense laws. On the other hand, if the jurors believed that the prosecutors did not meet their burden to show second degree murder or manslaughter, the stand your ground law would have had no relevance to the outcome of the case.

While it is a positive thing to see the public actively engaged in debating these laws, it is essential that the public has the correct information about the laws on which it debates. The media coverage on the stand your ground law was deplorable. There was an absence of credible expert commentary.

“Stand your ground” laws will remain controversial, and should be vigorously debated as well as understood. However, in our zeal to make the Zimmerman case about the failure of such laws, we have ignored the glaring fact that it had no real application in that case. Nonetheless, “stand your ground” laws can be used perniciously and they should be reviewed state by state.

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