Jurors discussed Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground self-defense law before rendering their not-guilty verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial, one of the jurors told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
The jurors struggled with the law and the jury instructions, said the juror, who spoke anonymously and was identified only by her court ID, B37.
“The law became very confusing. It became very confusing,” she told Cooper Monday night. “We had stuff thrown at us. We had the second-degree murder charge, the manslaughter charge, then we had self defense, Stand Your Ground.”
Juror B37 mentioned Stand Your Ground a second time of her own accord, saying the jury ultimately made its not-guilty verdict Saturday night based on the evidence and “because of the heat of the moment and the Stand Your Ground.”
Still, the degree to which Stand Your Ground led to the not-guilty verdict is unclear and in dispute. Cooper never asked B37.
Stand Your Ground allows a law-abiding citizen to “meet force with force, including deadly force” if he reasonably feels threatened in a confrontation. The NRA-drafted law, passed by the Florida Legislature in 2005, made two major changes to homicide cases:
• It changed standard jury instructions, which previously held that a person had a duty to retreat by using “every reasonable means,” and,
• It gave prospective defendants the right to immunity from prosecution. To make the immunity determination, the courts established pre-trial Stand Your Ground hearings.
Gun-control advocates and many Democrats want to change or eliminate the law. Republicans, who control the Legislature, say the law has helped law-abiding citizens reduce violent crime, and they don’t want to change it.
Zimmerman’s case made Stand Your Ground, which spread to more than two dozen states after it was passed in Florida, a national topic of conversation because he wasn’t arrested for 44 days after shooting Trayvon Martin, a Miami Gardens teen, in a Sanford subdivision where he was visiting his dad on Feb. 26, 2012.
Amid protests and national media attention, Gov. Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor who then charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder.
Zimmerman waived his right to the Stand Your Ground immunity hearing, a pre-trial event that’s not spelled out in statute. But he was afforded the protections of Stand Your Ground, which is embedded in Florida’s self-defense laws. Its language, found in statute 776.013, was tailored to the Zimmerman trial’s jury instructions and said the following:
“If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”
Despite the language on the jury-instruction form and B37’s comments about Stand Your Ground, some commentators have said it had nothing to do with the case because it was a standard self-defense case.
But Stand Your Ground is standard self defense in Florida.
The juror, a gun-rights supporter whose interview indicated she admired Zimmerman, said she was ready to acquit the defendant at the beginning of deliberations when the six-member jury held a vote.
“We had three not guilties, one second-degree murder and two manslaughters,” said the juror. “There was a couple of ’em in there that wanted to find him guilty of something.”
The law wasn’t a model of clarity.
One of the jurors wondered about how self-defense law applied in Zimmerman’s situation when he got out of his car and followed Trayvon. The jurors asked the court a question about it, but B37 didn’t recall the specifics.
Zimmerman said he thought the 17-year-old looked suspicious in the burglary-prone neighborhood. B37 said none of the jurors thought Zimmerman was motivated by racial animus.
“George Zimmerman is a man whose heart was in the right place, but just got displaced by the vandalism in the neighborhood,” she said. “He went above and beyond what he should have done. But I think his heart was in the right place. It just went terribly wrong.”
Was he guilty of something? Cooper asked.
“He’s guilty of not using good judgment,” she continued. “When he was in the car, he had called 911, he shouldn’t have gotten out of that car.”
On Tuesday, she partly faulted Trayvon for his own death because he stood his ground and didn’t retreat: “Oh, I believe he played a huge role in his death. He could have... when George confronted him, he could have walked away and gone home. He didn’t have to do whatever he did and come back and be in a fight.”
The prosecution argued that Zimmerman hunted Trayvon down because the neighborhood watch volunteer was armed with a Kel-Tec 9mm handgun, his “equalizer.” Trayvon was unarmed.
The jury ultimately didn’t buy prosecutors’ argument or feel they provided adequate proof.
Jurors also didn’t have all the court instructions for self-defense cases. The judge withheld instructions that the jurors could have used to determine that Zimmerman was an “initial aggressor,” a finding that could have denied him a self-defense defense. But the defense successfully argued — and the state did not forcefully protest — that prosecutors failed to show how Zimmerman was an aggressor.
“Losing the initial aggressor instruction may have been the moment the state lost its case,” criminal-law professor Alafair Burke wrote in the Huffington Post.
But lawyers and partisans are divided over whether Stand Your Ground made the prosecution’s job tougher.
Those who side with prosecutors say the state would have had an easier time pressing their case under Florida’s pre-Stand Your Ground jury instructions, which required the defendant to show how he “used every reasonable means within his power and consistent with his own safety to avoid the danger before resorting to that force.”
“The fact that the defendant was wrongfully attacked cannot justify his use of force likely to cause death or great bodily harm if by retreating he could have avoided the need to use that force,” the old instructions read, according to the Standard Jury Instructions in Criminal Cases issued by the Florida Supreme Court on May 25, 2006.
But other attorneys say that, even under the old law, Zimmerman might have been able to use deadly force. Zimmerman always had a right to follow Trayvon and observe him at a distance. And, they say, once Trayvon surprised and attacked Zimmerman as he walked back to his car — as Zimmerman claimed — Zimmerman had no way to retreat; he had to defend himself and had a right to use lethal force, even under the self-defense laws that predated Stand Your Ground.
Juror B37 said she believed the evidence showed that Zimmerman, not Trayvon, could be heard screaming for his life in the background of a 911 call a neighbor placed during the melee.
In closing arguments, the prosecution appeared to emphasize the details of the fight — how Zimmerman pulled his gun and how many blows Trayvon landed — more than the details of the man’s pursuit of the teen.
And that might have affected the jurors, who apparently focused more on the fight.
“So even though it was he [Zimmerman] who had gotten out of his car, followed Trayvon Martin, that didn’t matter in the deliberations?” Cooper asked B37. “What mattered was those final seconds, minutes when there was an altercation and whether or not... George Zimmerman felt his life was in danger?”
“Well, that’s how we read the law,” she said. “That’s how we got to the point of everyone believing not guilty.”
“We decided there’s just no other place to go,” the juror said.
“Because of the only two options you had: The second-degree murder or manslaughter?” Cooper asked. “You felt neither applied.”
“Right. Well, because of the heat of the moment and the Stand Your Ground,” she said. “He had a right to defend himself. If he felt threatened that his life was going to be taken away from him or he was going to have bodily harm, he had a right.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the Florida statute number of the Stand Your Ground law. The correct statute number: 776.013.