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The Role Of Florida's Stand Your Ground Law In The Zimmerman Verdict

Tampa Bay Times

The Stand Your Ground law was in the instructions given to the jury (page 12), which acquitted George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin. But it was among a list of laws in the instructions.

While one anonymous juror has said the verdict was based on the evidence, "the heat of the moment and Stand Your Ground," the jury as a whole did not need to explain how it arrived at the verdict. Zimmerman’s attorneys say the law wasn’t important to their case, relying instead on regular self-defense. 

But the Stand Your Ground law has turned self-defense on its head. Besides eradicating the need for a defendant to retreat, the law as applied has made it easier to claim self-defense.

Moreover, because of Stand Your Ground, police didn’t initially arrest Zimmerman.  So regardless of what the defense says, those who wanted a conviction have put the law “back on trial in the court of public opinion,” writes political reporter Marc Caputo of the Miami Herald.

An assessment of the law should include a Tampa Bay Times’ study of over 200 cases where the law has been invoked.  Last year, the paper did one of the most comprehensive studies of how Stand Your Ground has been applied, including a database of each individual case, the circumstances, and the outcome. 

Mostly the law has not helped people who pick fights and claim immunity. (The law’s main sponsor, Rep. Dennis Baxley, thought Stand Your Ground was inapplicable to the Zimmerman case because he had provoked Trayvon Martin.)  But the law has allowed some defendants to start a confrontation, kill an unarmed victim and walk away free.

Here are some examples that the Tampa Bay Times found:

Derrick Hansberry thought John Webster was having an affair with his estranged wife, so he confronted Webster on a basketball court in Dade City in 2005. A fight broke out and Hansberry shot his unarmed rival at least five times, putting him in the hospital for three weeks… a jury acquitted Hansberry. In 2006, [Deounce Harden] showed up at Steven Deon Mitchell's Jacksonville carwash business and started arguing over a woman. When the fight escalated, Harden shot and killed Mitchell, who was unarmed. Prosecutors filed no charges.

The problem is that the courts have applied the law “to allow[] people to kill based on subjective perceptions of threat,” says Donald Jones, professor of law at the University of Miami.

Jones adds that the subjectivity brought by Stand Your Ground has eroded another traditional rule of criminal law that “one cannot create the conditions of one’s own defense.”  In other words, if you start the fight, you can’t claim self-defense unless you meet certain exceptions. 

Credit Tampa Bay Times
Tampa Bay Times
A screenshot of the Tampa Bay Times database on Stand Your Ground cases shows the November 2012 killing of Jacksonville black teen Jordan Davis by white adult Michael Dunn. The trial is scheduled for September.

That common sense rule is what prompted many to ask: Why didn’t the jury weigh the fact that Zimmerman had been tailing Martin and then got out of his car? 

That omission was part of the prosecution’s strategic error, says Jones, in charging Zimmerman with second-degree murder and not lesser crimes.

In a murder case, the focus on the last few minutes before the killing - who was standing over whom, whose voice was on the 911 tape - makes sense, observes Jones. 

What about the fact that Zimmerman had been following Martin, that it was maybe reckless for Zimmerman to get out of the car, and that his action may have put Martin in reasonable fear of his life?

“That will always be assault,” says Jones - the prosecution “could have won that case.”

Only toward the end of the trial was the possible charge of manslaughter introduced to the Zimmerman jury. The charge of assault was never given to the jury.  According to Jones, the constitutional right against double jeopardy (or retrying someone for the same offense) now prevents the state from pursuing assault.

The federal government, however, may conduct its own prosecution.