The Curious Case of George Zimmerman and the Castle Doctrine
By R Tamara de Silva
July 13, 2013
The George Zimmerman case is valuable because it sheds needed light on the pale underbelly of the Castle Doctrine and stand your ground laws. A jury acquitted George Zimmerman this evening of Second Degree murder in the tragic death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. This flashed on my phone and I related it to my cab driver. The driver, who was Eastern European said he had sympathized with Zimmerman and believed he was right to profile the teenager because crimes are committed by blacks in his neighborhood. He was happy with the verdict. The ugly truth is, there are likely many who agreed with the cab driver, and the debate over the Zimmerman case for them falls along much older racial divides, the broadest generalizations and suspicions that while unarticulated in polite society, remain like the monsters under the cot for much of my childhood. But the George Zimmerman case is less about race or civil rights than a dangerously vague set of laws that are presently on the books in at least 21 different states. From a legal perspective, these laws called, stand your ground laws invite disaster as they are written sufficiently vaguely to immunize what would otherwise be murder.
Social studies of the impact of stand your ground laws have varying results. While proponents of the stand your ground laws like the National Rifle Association insist these laws have not increased the incidence of gun death, many others warn that they have done just that, even dramatically so. Some studies point to increases in gun related homicides of 8-9% since their enactment in various states, another cites an increase in gun related homicides of 300% in Florida alone.
Getting back to the verdict, whatever neighborhood watch zealotry prompted Zimmerman, assuming for the sake of argument, he had a reason to follow Trayvon Martin, even when told not to by the Police, other than that Trayvon Martin must have seemed to be the manifestation of all the various and vile descriptive explicatives Zimmerman articulated to the 9-11 operator-perhaps to give Zimmerman the benefit of the doubt, he was possessed of some articulable reason other than Trayvon Martin was "walking while being black,"- he followed him and killed him-in self-defense.
Florida's stand your ground law, despite misinformation found on the Internet and the more politically slanted media outlets, played a role in the Zimmerman trial. Stand your ground was in the jury instructions on self-defense becaues it is a part of standard self-defense in Florida. Although the defense waived holding a hearing on the issue of stand your ground before the trial judge in May, that did not mean that stand your ground ceased to have a bearing on the case. The existence of Florida's stand your ground may also have been one of the principle reasons why Zimmerman was not charged in the death of Trayvon Martin for some time and then, only as if in capitulation to a public outcry for justice. Stand your ground was contained in the jury instructions as a defense to both second degree murder and manslaughter in the instructions on what the Zimmerman jury should consider the justifiable use of deadly force by Zimmerman,
"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 [my emphasis] 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."
What was missing from the jury instructions and withheld by the judge in the case was asking the jurors to determine whether ZImmerman was the "initial aggressor." Had the jury determined that Zimmerman was the "initial aggressor," he may not have been able to successfully use self-defense.
Zimmerman's trial cast necessary light on the castle doctrine or "stand your ground" law in Florida-it would be good if Americans had a conversation about stand your ground laws.
Zimmerman's claim in a television interview with Sean Hannity that he knew nothing of and had never heard of Florida's stand your ground law, was rebutted by the prosecution witness Army Captain Alexis Carter who said that Zimmerman had studied stand your ground laws in a 2010 course and was an "A" student. Zimmerman had also studied criminal investigations and witness testimony as part of his desire to have become a police officer. Although it is certainly possible that it was a coincidence that Zimmerman's relating of the events of the evening that led to the murder of Trayvon Martin largely fit a legal fact pattern for the invocation of a stand your ground defense.
The NRA lobbied for stand your ground laws as being an important part of the right of gun ownership. The law had long conveyed a duty to retreat in the face of imminent harm. While the duty to retreat is not always practical or even a reasonable burden to ask of someone in fear for their lives or imminent bodily harm -stand your ground is a more dangerous problem disguised as its solution.
Under stand your ground laws you are justified in the use of deadly force to defend yourself, not just in your home, but wherever you find yourself-even at a Taco Bell drive-thru. For instance, on April 13, 2013, Cordell Jude shot and killed a mentally disabled Daniel Adkins, Jr. who was on his nightly walk of his Labrador retriever Lady. Cordell Jude said he did not fear for his life but claimed that because he had had a verbal altercation with Adkins, for hitting or making contact with his car, and having some object that looked like a bat or pipe-he shot him with a gun that he happened to be carrying on his lap. No pipe or bat or any object other than a dog leash was ever found on or anywhere near the body. Cordell Jude admitted that he only waited for the Police after shooting Daniel Adkins dead because the Labrador, Lady, was attached to the dead man by its collar and leash and was in the way of the Jude's car.
Stand your ground rules muddy the waters of justifiable use of force because they change the law to allow for the most subjective states of fear- inviting and excusing what would otherwise be unreasonable fear. These laws set the stage for allowing instances of road rage, and mundane confrontation to escalate into justifiable murder. Rage, temper and simple sociopathy can later be legally dressed up and masked as fearful states. Stand your ground has been used by gang members, a case where victim had his back to the shooter and one where he was lying on the ground unable to move, et. al. -the wide use of stand your ground makes a mockery of its legislative intent and its defenders do not serve themselves by ignoring this just to conform to any political party lines.
Bruce Bartlett, the chief assistant states attorney in Tampa was quoted as saying that he sees instances where his office does not prosecute a shooter because of stand your ground where it would have otherwise, "I see cases where I'll think, 'This person didn't really need to kill that person but the law, as it is written, justifies their action,' …It may be legally within the boundaries. But at the end of the day, was it really necessary?"
It is interesting, or rather disconcerting to note that in a great many cases in which homicide is justified under stand your ground laws, the party that is killed, is unarmed. These laws do not further the cause of lawful gun ownership, they harm it in that they conflate lawful gun ownership under the Second Amendment with seeming nuttbaggery.
Getting back to race, and I hope this was never about race, but the Tampa Bay Times reported that when stand your ground was invoked in Florida and the victim was black, the defendant was acquitted 73% of the time. If the victim was white, and the shooter invoked the stand your ground defense, the rate of acquittal was 59%...perhaps a coincidence but the odds and a prosecution that at times seemed to lack a pulse always favored Zimmerman. The prosecution was almost consistently disheartening to watch.
Since the law in this instance need not be parodied to become farce-a word to the wise, if you live in one of the 21 states that have stand your ground laws, do not under any circumstance risk provoking or looking suspicious, or walking in the wrong neighborhood (even if you live there) or approaching just anyone, they may be paranoid and entirely legally justified in shooting you.
R. Tamara de Silva
July 13, 2013