OMG! It has happened again! A nonblack assailant, George Zimmerman, for no apparent reason kills a young unarmed black male, Trayvon Martin. Such stories strike fear in the heart of every black parent who is rearing a young black male. They know it can very easily be their child next time.
As a father rearing a black teenage son, I am outraged. However, as an attorney, I wanted to step back and dispassionately analyze the law and facts in this case and offer my perspective. Especially since I have represented people in self-defense cases.
Let’s begin with the facts that are being reported. George Zimmerman was patrolling the neighborhood although he was not part of any neighborhood watch program. He saw Trayvon Martin, a skinny 17-year-old black teenager, who was in the neighborhood visiting his father. Trayvon was unarmed and was leaving a neighborhood store after buying some skittles. Zimmerman called 911 and reported that Trayvon looked suspicious. He did not report being attacked by Trayvon or observing Trayvon doing anything illegal. The 911-dispatcher instructed Zimmerman not to follow Trayvon but Zimmerman did so anyway. According to a young girl who was on the phone with Trayvon when he was shot, Trayvon ran from Zimmerman out of fear but Zimmerman caught, cornered and confronted Trayvon. Trayvon asked Zimmerman why he was being followed. Zimmerman asked Trayvon why was he in the neighborhood and then pushed and shot Trayvon. Simultaneously, several witnesses called 911. During one of their calls, Trayvon is heard begging for his life when Zimmerman shot Trayvon.
Zimmerman is claiming self-defense. Florida has two self-defense statutes that seem on point in this case. The first is Florida’s general self-defense statute. The other is Florida’s no retreat statute, which is commonly called the “Stand Your Ground” statute. Both are found at at §§ 776.012 and 776.013(3) of Florida’s Crimes Statutes.
Let’s begin by analyzing the case under Florida’s general self-defense statute. As paraphrased by me, the statute justifies the use of deadly force when a person reasonably believes that deadly force is needed to prevent himself or another from being killed or seriously injured or to stop a forcible felony entry. The statute then creates a presumption that a person is in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury for himself or another if the dead man was in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering a dwelling, residence or occupied vehicle and the shooter knew or had reason to know of the unlawful and forceful entry.
However, the statute does not presumed that a person is in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury for himself or another if:
- The dead man owned the dwelling, residence or occupied vehicle he was trying to enter; or
- The shooter was involved in unlawful activity; or
- The dead man was trying to forcibly remove his own child or grandchild from a dwelling, residence or occupied vehicle.
Applying the reported facts of this case to Florida’s general self-defense statute, Zimmerman’s use of deadly force was not justified, for the following reasons. It is not reasonable that Zimmerman feared for his or another person’s life when according to 911 tapes and the young girl’s testimony Zimmerman chased, cornered and pushed Trayvon. In other words, Zimmerman was the aggressor and Trayvon was unarmed. What’s more, the above presumption does not benefit Zimmerman either since none of the reported facts suggest that Trayvon was attempting to unlawfully and forcibly enter a dwelling, residence or occupied vehicle when Zimmerman shot him.
Now, let’s apply the reported facts of the case to Florida’s so called Stand Your Ground statute. It is found at § 776.013(3) of the Florida’s Crimes Statutes. It says:
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.
Essentially, this statute codifies Florida’s no retreat law. It would have justified the use of deadly force in the instant case only if (1) Zimmerman was not involved in unlawful activity when he shot Trayvon, (2) Trayvon had attacked Zimmerman, and (3) Zimmerman reasonably believe deadly force was necessary to prevent his death or serious injury. Arguably, Zimmerman was involved in unlawful activity namely assaulting Trayvon by chasing, cornering, confronting and pushing Trayvon. Moreover, in light of these facts, it seems incredible that Trayvon had attacked Zimmerman. Hence, in my opinion, the Stand Your Ground defense seems implausible too.
So let’s recap our analysis. Zimmerman’s use of deadly force seems bogus under both Florida’s self-defense and Stand Your Ground statutes for several reasons.
- Zimmerman was the aggressor and probably assaulted Trayvon having disregarded the 911-dispatcher’s instructions not to pursue Trayvon and instead chased, cornered, confronted and pushed Trayvon.
- There’s no proof that Trayvon attacked Zimmerman.
- Trayvon was indeed unarmed. He reportedly had only candy in his possession.
- Trayvon is heard begging for his life on a 911 call.
- Zimmerman is heard telling the 911-dispatcher that Trayvon was a black male, which prompted the questions why did Trayvon’s race matter to Zimmerman? Did race factor into Zimmerman’s decision to shoot Trayvon?
It does not bode well for Zimmerman either that he was not part of any registered Neighborhood Watch group and that he violated major principles of the Neighborhood Watch manual, which states that Neighborhood Watch members should not carry weapons. I cannot say that George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon because I don’t know all the facts; but, his claims of self-defense under Florida law, without more, seems intenable. Hopefully, fair and impartial criminal and civil juries will have the opportunities to learn all the facts and obtain justice for Trayvon and his family. And let’s not forget all of the young black men who are killed everyday for no apparent reasons by other young black men. Let’s become as outraged and demand action against that crisis as well. R.I.P Trayvon Martin.
Disclaimer: George Zimmerman has not been charged with committing any crime, and even if he were, he is presumed innocent until his guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Comments here are merely the personal opinions of the author. This is not legal advice.