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The Politics of Self-Defense

By now, nearly everyone in United States has come to know the name George Zimmerman. To say that he is famous is to ignore the meaning of the word infamy. The other person inextricably linked to Zimmerman’s name is Trayvon Martin. Just who is viewed as the victim and who is viewed as the assailant in this shocking case appears to depend upon one’s vantage point. In this writer’s opinion, the jury got it right when they acquitted Zimmerman of all wrongdoing at his trial.

This is not to say, from what I have seen, that Zimmerman handled this entire situation in the most appropriate manner. It seems almost certain that he did not proceed entirely “by the book” with regard to doing everything that he possibly could have done to avoid conflict. That said, there has already been enough Monday morning quarterbacking on this case to fill volumes. I will not jump on that bandwagon here. 

Clearly, the jury felt that the state failed to meet its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that George Zimmerman was not in fear for his life when he fired one shot into Trayvon Martin. It is important to note that this is not the same thing as the jury finding that George Zimmerman was, in fact, in fear for his life when he fired the shot. While the legal outcome may be the same as between those two options, they are not the same. It would analogous to being found “not guilty” as opposed to “innocent.” Defendants are never legally found “innocent” even if the jury, during their deliberation, makes that finding. The legal verdict will always be “not guilty” or “guilty”. Here, we will never likely know whether the jury believed that Zimmerman was in fear for his life, but we do know that the jury found that the state failed to meet its burden in proving that he was not.

Let’s assume, for arguments sake, that Zimmerman did screw some stuff up.

Why did he continue to follow Martin after he called the police and gave the best description of Martin and his suspicious activities that he could? Perhaps a picture of Martin taken from his cell phone would’ve sufficed to allow him to cease following Martin? We know that Martin was under the influence of drugs (marijuana was confirmed and it appears that codeine was also in his system) that night. Perhaps he responded irrationally to the notion of someone following him so pointedly – we will never know. In short, it is better not to goad someone into an attack if one has the option not doing so. After all – the best gunfight you can ever get into is the gunfight that you never get into.

So again, let’s assume that Zimmerman was “stupid” in not breaking off the slow – speed pursuit of Trayvon Martin that night. Does this mean that he forfeits his right to defend himself when attacked? Clearly, the jury felt that the answer to that question was “no.” In a nutshell, if someone does something stupid which puts them into a life-threatening situation, does that mean they forfeit the right to defend themselves? The answer, legally, is no. As we have seen in this case, however, the urged political answer is a bit more complicated.

Immediately following the jury’s verdict, Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s lead attorney, stated that if George Zimmerman had been black, or If Trayvon Martin had been white, the prosecution would have never initiated a case against Zimmerman. I am forced to agree.

We are surrounded in today’s society by people crying “racism” simply because they do not like the way they are treated by someone else who happens to be of a different race. To me, this is nearly as great of an injustice as racism itself. The little boy who cried “Wolf!” comes to mind. Unfortunately, this “little boy” has become a loud voice in today’s society. It seems to me that these false cries of racism diminish the horrific actual cases of racially motivated crimes and atrocities that still exist in our society.

The Zimmerman case has also become the source of a great deal of conversation about the term “stand your ground.” For the record, Arizona has no “Stand Your Ground” law, per se. Arizona does have a common-law history of not requiring retreat in the face of unlawful lethal force. That does not, however, change the requirement that one must be in fear for one’s life, or the life of another, to employ, legally, lethal force. To my knowledge, this is the exact same requirement that exists in Florida and any nearly every other state in the United States of America. “Stand Your Ground” is a term largely invented by, and certainly nurtured by, the press.  It implies that one is justified in using lethal force if one’s “space” is encroached upon. That is a lie.  One can never legally use lethal force unless one reasonably believes a human life is in imminent lethal danger. To require retreat, prior to use of lethal force when one is in fear for one’s life, would be to invite disaster. Think about people who would be unable to retreat–the infirm, for instance. Just how fast need one pump one’s wheelchair in reverse before one can draw a weapon to deal with an imminent lethal threat? Retreat, if available (and it usually is), is often the safest and wisest option in the face of a lethal threat.  But to require retreat is nonsensical. Despite this fact, at least one state (Maryland) still has such a requirement. “Stand Your Ground” laws, like the concept of the “Castle Doctrine” (another misnomer that is perpetuated by the media), give absolutely no right to use lethal force that would not already be in existence.

It would appear that the jury agrees with the following concept–by the time that George Zimmerman realized that he was on his back and his head was being beaten against a concrete sidewalk, the issue of retreat became moot. What ground was he standing, exactly?

The recent campaign by some interested political voices to abolish “Stand Your Ground” laws shows ignorance which is unlikely to be penetrated by logic.

I would love to be proven wrong – but sadly, my advancing cynicism makes that seem less and less likely.

1 Comment
  1. Good discussion of an emotionally and politically charged tragedy. While we strive to make justice “blind,” sadly human beings do bring their biases, fears and failures into relationships with others. No different for Jurors.

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