By: Kameron Hillstrom
The scene is like something from a movie: the courtroom filled with family and friends, teeming with media. The judge sits stoic above the proceeding as the jury verdict is read: Zimmerman was found not guilty of killing seventeen year old Trayvon Martin. Politicians on both sides of the aisle were quick to criticize the decision, the politicization, and the case itself. But, in this instance of questionable evidence, barbaric laws, and a dead human being, the aim of the discussion should not be pointing fingers, but rather fixing the situation so it never happens again.
In 2005, Florida passed its current stand your ground law, effectively defining an individuals duty to retreat. The law states that any person acting lawfully has no duty to retreat from threatening situations, and can meet force with force. With no duty to retreat, any situation where an individual feels fear of great bodily harm or death can be retaliated against with deadly force. The problem then is what constitutes “great bodily harm?” Florida has not specifically made a definition for this phrase, so the judge in the Zimmerman case fashioned this definition: “great bodily harm in the context of aggravated battery means great as distinguished from slight, trivial, minor or moderate harm [and] as such, does not include mere bruises as are likely to be inflicted in a simple assault and battery.” Zimmerman had “lacerations to the back of his head from the pavement and a swollen bloody nose,” injuries that, on a plain reading of the jury instructions, seem to fit the “more than bruises” standard.
The fact that the Florida Stand Your Ground law allowed this verdict has received harsh criticism in the media since the July 13 verdict. President Obama came out saying the outcome was “a tragedy,” but, in reality, the tragedy is the stand your ground law itself. This case, which hinged on laws similar to self-defense, should be a sign that the time of the Stand Your Ground law is coming to an end. When staunch supporters and advocates of the original legislation, the NRA among them, stop advocating for the law, the underlying premise needs to be reevaluated.
The problem the court faced here is that Zimmerman did not technically break any Floridian laws. To be convicted of murder, the jury needed to find that Zimmerman killed Martin out of “ill will, hatred, or spite, or with a depraved mind.” Zimmerman did not break any laws while following or watching Martin leading up to the brawl. Therefore, Zimmerman qualifies for the Stand Your Ground statute, and the jury had to take into account Zimmerman’s fear of imminent injury. Zimmerman’s statements to his dispatcher stating that Martin was one of the “punks” who “always get away” may show his state of mind moments before Martin was killed. Zimmerman’s multiple calls reporting black youths in the neighborhood he believed to be “suspicious” also lend to his possible racial motives. However, since Zimmerman was not required to testify under the Fifth Amendment, it is possible that he was referring to youths in general. Unfortunately, the ambiguity of his statements didn’t aid in satisfying Zimmerman’s guilt to the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. By not meeting that standard, “justice” demands that Zimmerman walk free.
The evidence introduced at trial was suspect at best going for either the defense or the prosecution. Here are a few examples of the murky evidence aimed at Zimmerman’s prosecution. Zimmerman’s neighbor, and the closest thing to a witness to Martin’s death, stated that a man in dark colored clothing had another man in red or light colored clothing pinned to the ground and was beating him. Those descriptions match Martin and Zimmerman, respectively. The neighbor went to call the police and heard the gunshot. The prosecution’s theory was that Zimmerman initiated the fight, and therefore should not have the benefit of the Stand Your Ground law. On this point, there were no eyewitnesses to either the initialization of the fight or the shots fired. To bolster the prosecution’s theory, they used the testimony of Rachel Jeantel, Martin’s friend who was on the phone at the time of the altercation. The problem with Jeantel’s testimony is that it changed between her deposition and the trial. There were no contradictions between the two, but it was enough to possibly put doubt in the mind of the jurors. Adding to this is the questionable admission of Martin’s marijuana use, and the medical examiner’s change of heart from stating that the level of marijuana would have had no effect to stating that it “could have had a physical or mental effect on Martin.” This bolsters Zimmerman’s statement that Martin looked like he was “on drugs or something.” However in such a small quantity, the information was likely more prejudicial to Martin’s character than probative to the facts of the case, and shouldn’t have been admitted.
The problem with this case is that the general public feels that Zimmerman got away with murder. Moreover, a number of people are outraged that Zimmerman will have his firearm returned to him. In this instance, the system failed Trayvon Martin, a seventeen year old who is now dead. However, and taken with a grain of salt, the system worked as it is supposed to. Zimmerman may have been racist, profiling and targeting Martin as he cut through the neighborhood. If so, Zimmerman may have a federal civil rights claim coming his way, if they can get around the double jeopardy issue. Without proof to that regard, Zimmerman was not shown to have committed murder beyond a reasonable doubt. The issue presently is that if things happened the way Zimmerman stated, this should have been a simple self-defense case. Instead, it became a private gun owner rights case mixed with racial undertones calling back to the civil rights era. What needs to happen now is not an attack on a man the law deemed not guilty, but an attack on the law that deemed him not guilty. If not for the fallacy that this case has shown it to be, the law should be reevaluated for the next trial that falls under its purview. This would allow the next situation to be viewed as simple self-defense and not as a need to stand your ground. Then the next Trayvon Martin need not fear cutting across a suburb because of an overzealous community watchman. The Stand Your Ground law extends considerable discretion to individuals in situations when they are likely acting emotionally. Fear and firearms don’t mix well, and simply stating you had imminent fear of bodily injury shouldn’t be a license to kill. In the right hands, or in the right situations, this law could be beneficial to society, much like