Legal Insights on the Zimmerman Verdict
By Joe Palazzolo
We asked a panel of self-defense experts for reactions to a jury finding George Zimmerman not guilty of all charges in the death of Trayvon Martin.
Joshua Dressler, a professor at The Ohio State University Michael E. Moritz College of Law, said the acquittal came as no surprise. In an email to Law Blog, he wrote:
Given the presumption of innocence and Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which places an even greater burden of proof on the prosecutor, the acquittal was no surprise in light of the conflicting evidence. One could see that the prosecutor knew he was in trouble when he asked to include a manslaughter count, and even tried the outrageous felony-murder count (that the judge rejected). Race was never expressly raised, but it was still there lurking. The question that the criminal trial didn’t answer, and probably couldn’t is whether, had Trayvon Martin had been white, Zimmerman would have grown suspicion and confronted the person so aggressively.
The state’s 2005 “Stand Your Ground” law removed a person’s duty to try to run away in the face of danger before using deadly force, created a presumption that such force is lawful and immunized those who kills in self-defense from prosecution and private lawsuits.
The law provides that a person who claims to have killed in self-defense can seek a court ruling, before any trial, that they acted legally, but Mr. Zimmerman and his lawyer decided against that option and presented his case directly to a jury.
Still, according to Mr. Dressler, the law played a role in the trial.
The statute itself places the burden of persuasion regarding self-defense on the prosecutor — to prove that the defendant did NOT act in self-defense. In the past, in most states, if a defendant claimed self-defense, it was up to the defendant to prove he DID act in self-defense. So the SYG law in this case had an important legal impact.
Stephen P. Garvey, a professor at Cornell Law School, said he thinks the jury “got it right.”
Unless you think Zimmerman “provoked” the use of force against himself it was pretty easy to find self defense. If you think he did “provoke” the use of force you have a pretty expansive view of provocation. Think about it. Even if Zimmerman did follow Martin, should that mean he loses the right to defend himself when thereafter faced with an imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm? Following someone when maybe you shouldn’t make you guilty of murder, or even manslaughter.
Andrew Branca, a Massachusetts lawyer and author of “The Law of Self Defense, 2nd Edition,” went even further. The Zimmerman case, he said, “would make a very nice case study of the justifiable use of deadly force in self-defense for a law school criminal law text book.”
Mr. Branca explained why the most recognizable aspect of the “Stand Your Ground” law didn’t apply in Mr. Zimmerman’s case.
“Stand your ground” is a legal release from the traditional duty to retreat, if safely possible, before using force in self-defense. When safe retreat is not possible, however, the duty does not apply. If the duty does not apply, “stand your ground” is not needed to release you from that duty. In this case, at the moment George Zimmerman used deadly force in self-defense his attacker was pinning him to the ground and reaching for his gun. [This is Mr. Zimmerman’s version of events.] Under such circumstances no reasonable avenue of self-defense exists, so there is no duty to retreat even absent “stand your ground.”
While Mr. Zimmerman’s defense lawyers elected against seeking immunity before trial, they have said they will do so should he face a private lawsuit related to Trayvon Martin’s death, Mr. Branca noted.
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