More than half of the states in the U.S. practice a legal self-defense code called the Castle Doctrine, which gives Americans the right not to retreat if their home is attacked.
I don’t have any problem with giving a homeowner the right to protect his turf.
But some states, like Florida, stretch the law to say that their residents have the right not to retreat in any location whatsoever. These laws are often called “stand your ground” laws.
John Leombruno is an attorney for Arnold Law Firm in Jacksonville, Fla. These laws imply, he said, that someone threatened does not have to run, no matter where he is, unless he can undoubtedly do so safely.
“Florida law says you can even use deadly force if you think you are in danger of death or great bodily harm,” Leombruno said.
The Trayvon Martin incident has shone a light on laws like these, and I had no idea how ambiguous and determinant they can be in criminal homicide cases until I did some research.
Late last month, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, an African-American, was shot by George Zimmerman, a Latino neighborhood watchman, while walking through a gated community in Sanford, Fla.
Martin ventured to a nearby convenience store during halftime of the NBA All-Star Game to buy Skittles and an Arizona iced tea.
On his way back to the home of his father’s girlfriend, Martin was spotted by Zimmerman, who called Sanford Police Department’s non-emergency number to tell them he spotted a young black male he thought was “up to no good” and possibly on drugs.
Martin was unarmed and perceivably innocent, wielding only Skittles and iced tea.
On his trek through the neighborhood, Zimmerman began following him and initiated a physical altercation. One witness said Martin ended up on top of Zimmerman and was swinging his fists, but another claimed there was no brawling at all.
Zimmerman shot and killed Martin shortly after this alleged altercation.
Youngstown State University sophomore Tyterieon Wright said he thinks that justice can be reached only when Zimmerman is put behind bars.
“That kid did nothing, and this man just shoots him all because he had a hunch. He was wrong,” Wright said. “He should be in jail for murder.”
Junior Julia Colecchi said she believes there might be more to it than that.
“For better or worse, this man might have just been trying to do his job,” she said. “Did it end up being wrong? Yes. But he’d be praised as a hero if that decision had been a good one.”
The media has been covering the incident for a month now, and celebrities like LeBron James have been using Twitter to express their anger toward a Florida legal system that hasn’t charged Zimmerman with anything due to insufficient evidence.
There is no question the incident is tragic; as an outsider looking in, I see a racist man, assigned to watch a neighborhood, who disobeyed the request of the police department so he could pick a fight — a fight that he started losing and that caused him to panic enough to pull a trigger.
It is also important to note a few things about Zimmerman. In 2005, he was charged with violence and battery on an officer while attempting to prevent the arrest of a friend. Around the same time, an ex-fiancee accused him of domestic violence and filed a restraining order against him.
Zimmerman also referred to Martin in his phone call to police as a “coon.”
His past certainly does not confirm his guilt in killing Martin, but it certainly calls into question the reliability of his self-defense plea because it paints him as a possible racist with an unstable police record.
The problem with stand your ground laws, or any plea of self-defense for that matter, is that it requires a great deal of trust in the person making the plea. It is incredibly difficult for an outsider to determine what was and what wasn’t too much force in the heat of the moment.
For an attorney or a court system to even attempt to place legal blame on someone, someone basically has to decide for that person what is and what is not dangerous enough in the heat of the moment for self-defense.
With a law so heavily based on discretion and one’s own perception of danger, the only two people who know what legal action is appropriate are Zimmerman and Martin.
Many Americans are now calling for a repeal of these stand your ground laws, but Leombruno said he feels that people must stop jumping to conclusions until all facts surface.
“The law isn’t even in play because no one has been charged yet,” he said. “It is really just a hypothetical situation at this point.”
Of course, a plea of self-defense is acceptable in situations where it truly occurred, but in the case of Trayvon Martin, it certainly seems as if Zimmerman acted proactively rather than reactively, and he was very hasty in incorporating a negative, hateful agenda into his duty to protect this gated community.
But the reason he has yet to see criminal charges is because the courts don’t see sufficient evidence against him. Technically, the actions taken by Zimmerman are legal in Florida, so without consistent witness accounts or overwhelming evidence against him, Zimmerman must remain a free man by law.
The burden of proof would be on the state, and a conviction of Zimmerman beyond a reasonable doubt is very unlikely.
My own premonitions aside, I must support Florida law officials for upholding the stand your ground laws because saying that Zimmerman probably did it simply isn’t enough.
The American legal system isn’t perfect; the hope must be that laws like these are not abused, but, instead, used only when a claim of self-defense is just and truthful.
YSU Police Chief John Beshara said he believes that, after all of the facts are clarified, Zimmerman should be judged on “the law of the land.”
“What I hear on the radio and see in the newspapers is a lot of speculation,” he said. “I think he should go through the justice system [in Florida], but you can’t guess. We don’t do that in our business.”
If the facts are still so hazy after a month of investigation, I don’t believe they will ever clear up enough to incarcerate Zimmerman.
So, as a society, our only other option is to learn from this tragedy and hope, in Martin’s memory, that misunderstandings and stereotypes like this don’t continue to spawn violence by law enforcement officials who feel protected by the terms of stand your ground laws.