When George Zimmerman saw 17-year-old Trayvon Martin walking in his central Florida neighborhood, he saw a young black male who in his mind must be up to no good. He called 911 to report Martin, as he had done repeatedly when he had seen young black males in the neighborhood. In all, he had called 911 46 times since January 2011.
Then, despite instructions from authorities to the contrary, Zimmerman tracked Martin in his vehicle and finally confronted the young man.
We don’t know for sure what happened next. Maybe Zimmerman, a civilian with no arrest powers, got out of his truck and tried to restrain Martin — a few minutes earlier he had expressed frustration to the 911 operator that “they always get away.” Maybe Martin grew argumentative, challenging Zimmerman’s right to follow and harass him.
We do know that in the physical struggle that ensued, someone began screaming for help, and the much larger Zimmerman pulled his pistol and shot Martin.
We also know that when police arrived at the scene, they too treated Martin, now lying dead in the grass, as a young black male who had probably been up to good. They didn’t see Trayvon, the good student with a clean record who just a few minutes earlier had been talking with his girlfriend on his cellphone while he walked, telling her he was worried because some guy seemed to be following him.
So when Zimmerman claimed he had been acting in self defense, they believed him. The officers were also aware that Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law gives gun owners considerable leeway in such situations. So even though an innocent young man lay dead at their feet of a gunshot wound, they did not arrest the man who killed him.
The story has so many tragic elements. Trayvon, who was walking back to his father’s home in the neighborhood after buying Skittles from the local 7-Eleven, had been guilty of being black and 17, “profiled” first by Zimmerman and again, while dead, by the police.
Zimmerman, his courage probably bolstered by the weapon he carried, took actions that he had no moral or legal right to undertake, and he ended up killing someone as a result. (Recordings of previous 911 calls by Zimmerman and recordings of the calls that he and others made to 911 the night of the shootings are available here.)
Two authors of the Florida “stand your ground” bill argue that Zimmerman forfeited protection under that law when he chose to get out of his vehicle to confront Martin, ignoring the request of a 911 operator.
“They got the goods on him. They need to prosecute whoever shot the kid,” said (former state Sen. Durell) Peaden, a Crestview Republican who sponsored the deadly force law in 2005. “He has no protection under my law.”
Peaden and (state Rep. Dennis) Baxley, R-Ocala, say their law is a self-defense act. It says law-abiding people have no duty to retreat from an attacker and can meet “force with force.” Nowhere does it say that a person has a right to confront another.
The 911 tapes strongly suggest Zimmerman overstepped his bounds, they say, when the Sanford neighborhood crime-watch captain said he was following Trayvon and appeared to ignore a police request to stay away.
“The guy lost his defense right then,” said Peaden. “When he said ‘I’m following him,’ he lost his defense.”
Maybe so. But it is also true that their law encourages and endorses such armed confrontation and makes the case much less clear-cut than it probably ought to be. That law states:
(3) A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
Georgia has a similar law, passed a year after Florida. That’s a common pattern in gun laws in this state; Florida passes it first, and Georgia then follows. But because Georgia law has safeguards that Florida does not, Zimmerman would be easier to prosecute.
Georgia law states:
“(b) A person is not justified in using force under the circumstances specified in subsection (a) of this Code section if he:
(1) Initially provokes the use of force against himself with the intent to use such force as an excuse to inflict bodily harm upon the assailant….
(3) Was the aggressor or was engaged in a combat by agreement unless he withdraws from the encounter and effectively communicates to such other person his intent to do so and the other, notwithstanding, continues or threatens to continue the use of unlawful force.
Trayvon Martin, the most innocent person in this tragedy, has paid the highest price. He is dead. Zimmerman may yet face prosecution; a grand jury has been belatedly called to hear the evidence in the case. Federal authorities are looking into it as well. And while we have no idea whether Zimmerman was encouraged to act as he did by the existence of the “stand your ground” law passed by the Florida Legislature, there is no question it has made the pursuit of justice in this case more difficult.
There is also no question that Zimmerman’s actions and the stand-your-ground law share a common foundation in the belief that armed citizens not only have the right to take the law into their own hands, but should be encouraged to do so, even though they lack the training, judgment, professionalism and most of all accountability required of law enforcement.
– Jay Bookman