Aided by Florida’s flawed self-defense laws, George Zimmerman won acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager who was minding his own business walking to his father’s home in Sanford. The verdict underscores the urgent need for the criminal justice system to find a better way to deal with Floridians increasingly prone to use deadly force and claim justifiable homicide.
Legal experts seem to agree that the law and the judge’s instructions left the jury little choice. But the overwhelming feeling of unfairness over the verdict voiced by so many Floridians and others across the nation — of all political affiliations, races and ethnicities — cannot be ignored.
Absent redress, the anger and frustration will turn into contempt for the law.
The acquittal fails to satisfy a basic sense of justice. The fact that the victim was black and the shooter was not compounds the tragedy and deepens the bitter frustration felt by black people in our community, where Trayvon Martin lived, and elsewhere. How, they ask, can this be fair?
Now it’s up to the U.S. Justice Department to determine whether federal charges should be filed under hate-crime or civil-rights statutes. An investigation is certainly warranted, but many legal analysts believe that chances of a successful prosecution are slim. Mr. Zimmerman is a civilian — not acting as an agent of the law — with no history of overt racism.
That brings the issue back to Florida’s self-defense statutes. It is one of at least 20 states with provisions that don’t require civilians to flee from an intruder before fighting back. One study found that in states with these “Stand Your Ground” laws, the rates of murder and non-negligent manslaughter increased by 8 percent, an additional 600 homicides per year.
It also found that whites who kill blacks in Stand Your Ground states are far more likely to be found justified in their killings.
Mr. Zimmerman did not explicitly invoke that doctrine, but the law’s impact in homicide cases has made Florida more dangerous, a state that gives free rein to confrontations resulting in homicide.
The judge’s charge to the Zimmerman jury said that he had the right “to meet force with force, including deadly force” if he believed he was in danger of death or great bodily harm.
Before Stand Your Ground, however, the jury’s charge would have been far different: “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.”
To this day, Florida lawmakers have shown no desire to change back to that sensible standard of 2005. Conversely, the impact of the new law demonstrates an urgent need to roll back the new doctrine.
An analysis of the law by the Tampa Bay Times earlier this year contained disturbing findings. Nearly 70 percent of those who invoke Stand Your Ground to avoid prosecution have gone free. Further, defendants claiming Stand Your Ground are more likely to prevail if the victim is black. Seventy-three percent of those who killed a black person faced no penalty compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white.
The Legislature, in thrall to the NRA, is unlikely to change the self-defense law. But with Stand Your Ground being invoked more often and “justifiable” killings on the rise, lawmakers have to ask themselves what kind of state they want: One where justice prevails, or one where the law acts as an enabler of homicidal violence?