Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman.
It was getting dark in Sanford, Florida as 17-year old Trayvon Martin hurried back to his dad’s girlfriend’s home, Skittles and iced tea in hand, in the light rain. He was in a hurry to reclaim his seat in front of the TV to watch the NBA All-Star game, slated to begin in just minutes, at 7:30 p.m. He was nearly within the confines of the gated community where the woman lived when a man got out of a car, some 200 yards away and began to pursue him. Trayvon never made it home that night. Instead, within minutes, shortly after 7:15 p.m., he took a 9-millimeter bullet to the chest at close range. Trayvon, it should be mentioned, was black.
The man who shot him, George Zimmerman, 28, alleged the minor had punched him in the nose and bashed his head against the sidewalk. He told police, who arrived moments later, “It was self-defense.” Zimmerman is a local neighborhood watch “captain,” according to news reports. He is Hispanic.
These few facts we know. Trayvon died on the spot. George Zimmerman was questioned by a narcotics (not homicide) officer and was released. Zimmerman claimed it was self defense, claimed he felt threatened. The police, in their wisdom, felt nothing else could be done. Florida, you see, is one of 23 states with a law on the books known as “Justifiable Use of Deadly Force,” “Stand your Ground,” “Make My Day,” “expanded Castle Doctrine,” or, my favorite, “Shoot First.” Shoot first as in shoot first and ask questions later. The law gives shooters like Zimmerman an amazing advantage. Short a witness, no one remains to contest the claim of self defense.
Florida statute Title XLVI, chapters 776.012 and .013 contains the relevant clauses:
776.012 Use of force in defense of person.—A person is justified in using force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force.
776.013 Home protection; use of deadly force; presumption of fear of death or great bodily harm.—
(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,…
A few readers may recall the language. It is virtually identical to the language that appeared in a law passed by the Minnesota legislature in February, one that was vetoed by Governor Mark Dayton, who listed the concerns of law enforcement professionals as his reasons for the veto. I wrote a call for a veto for Open Salon, “Veto the Minnesota ‘Shoot First’ Law” just two days after Martin was killed on February 26. I had yet to hear of the case.
According to ABC News:
Sanford Police Chief Billy Lee said there is no evidence to dispute self-appointed neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman's assertion that he shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin out of self-defense.
"Until we can establish probable cause to dispute that, we don't have the grounds to arrest him," Lee said.
That is to say, under Florida’s Shoot First law, the police cannot take a known shooter into custody, a man who told 911 the following at 7:11 p.m., only minutes before the killing:
Hi, we’ve had some break-ins I my neighborhood and there’s this suspicious guy, near Retreat View Circle… This guy looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something.
He’s just staring, looking at all the houses. Now he’s coming toward me. He’s got his hand in his waistband. Something’s wrong with him….”
Dispatcher: Is he white, black, or Hispanic?
He looks black…I don’t know what his deal is…”
Police tell Zimmerman they are on their way. Zimmerman responds, “These assholes, they always get away.” Moment later, “Shit, he’s running…” Dispatcher: “Are you following him?” “Yeah…” “OK, we don’t need you to do that…” Zimmerman got out of the car.
Zimmerman, who possessed a concealed carry permit, was breaking every major rule of being in a neighborhood watch that night. He was armed. He was making his presence known to the person he was following. He was mis- and pre-judging “suspicious” activity. He pursued his target. He confronted his target.
According to ABC News, “Zimmerman left his car wearing a red sweatshirt and pursued Martin on foot between two rows of townhouses, about 70 yards from where the teen was going.” Zimmerman caught up with Martin, “a fist fight broke out and at one point Zimmerman, who outweighed Martin by more than 100 pounds, was on the ground and that Martin was on top.”
Someone was screaming help, Zimmerman claims it was he. A teacher cited as a witness claimed it was the youth. Austin Brown, 13, walking his dog, also heard those screams, along with a woman who was on the phone to 911 as the altercation unfolded in her back yard. Then a single shot rang out.
Insane Boundaries of Self Defense
When is a vigilante not a vigilante, but a victim? Under Florida law, it seems to be when he pulls the trigger. The notion that “standing one’s ground” includes the complex chain of events that unfolded in this case violates all notions of common sense, given the pursuit, and the animus of “these assholes always get away.” Zimmerman called 911 from his car. He then left his car to follow an unknown person—a kid who was yards from his own home—to confront him in the back of some stranger’s yard.
An astute blogger, Pat Carbonell, who writes the blog Lez Get Legal, wrote:
That Neighborhood Watch patrols are only supposed to observe and report is a well-known fact; it may be assumed that Trayvon Martin was aware of this. After Mr. Zimmerman left his vehicle, after calling in his report, he has said he approached Trayvon to talk with him. Even if he identified himself as a Neighborhood Watch member, Trayvon would have had no reason to believe him, as NW patrols are not supposed to confront anyone. If Mr. Zimmerman demanded that Trayvon give an accounting of himself, the young man had no reason to feel compelled to answer such questioning. If Mr. Zimmerman then gave any indication that he was trying to obstruct Trayvon from continuing on his way home, such as raising a hand or his voice, Trayvon would have been justified in feeling himself threatened, and under Florida law had a right to defend himself. Hence, the punch (or several punches) delivered to Zimmerman’s face.
Not only do “stand your ground” laws create a legal no-man’s land over the issue of presumption of perceived threat, and thus, innocence, thus reversing previous presumptions over the use of deadly force; they create unreal expectations in the minds of errant citizens. Zimmerman was described by neighbors as being “aggressive and intimidating” in the discharge of his volunteer duties. In 2005, he was charged with assaulting an officer—charges that were later dropped. He demonstrably had vigilante and racist tendencies, and he felt he had the law on his side. The fact is that he did have the law on his side, so much so that when one witness stated that she heard Trayvon screaming prior to being shot, the investigating officer corrected her, saying it was Zimmerman who was screaming, based solely on Zimmerman’s testimony. According to the New York Times, Trayvon's mother, Sybrina Fulton, heard the panicked neighbor's 911 call and swears it is her son's voice, "pleading for his life."
Trayvon did not have the law on his side. Though he in no way acted as if he were committing, or was about to commit, a forcible felony, he was stalked by a threatening looking man, a man who was much older and larger than him.
Like Trayvon, citizens of the 20 states with “Shoot First” laws, do not really have the law on their side. For people of color, “Shoot First” laws are a deadly threat. We can sit back and watch Florida justice take its course, or we can advocate for an FBI investigation into the blatant destruction of Trayvon Martin’s civil rights—and his life. A petition sponsored by the family is here. More than 317,000 people had signed it as of the time I began this piece. More than 425,000 signed by the time I finished it. The petition calls for a state investigation. In my mind that is not enough, and that’s the message I have communicated to my Senator and Representative. This is a landmark violation of the most basic principles of jurisprudence that should be used to discredit "Shoot First" laws for the presumptive miscarriages of justice that they are.
UPDATE: The New York Times reported at 9:30 EDT on March 20 that the Justice Department will investigate the killing of Trayvon Martin.