Stand Your Ground And The Zimmerman Defense

ZimmermanMedia figures are falsely claiming that Florida's controversial “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law played no role in the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin.

In the wake of Zimmerman's March 2012 killing of Martin, media attention turned to the role of Florida's “Stand Your Ground” (also known as “Shoot First” or “Kill at Will” statute). That law allows a person who believes his life or safety is in danger to use deadly force in self-defense without being required to retreat as long as they are not engaged in illegality and are attacked in a place they have a right to be.The law also allows for a defendant to seek an expedited pretrial hearing on those grounds, and grants people who kill in self-defense immunity from civil lawsuits.

The statute was drafted with the help of the National Rifle Association. After Florida passed the law in 2005, it was adopted as model legislation by the American Legislative Exchange Council and nearly two dozen states passed similar legislation. Such laws have been found to increase the rate of homicide and have a racially disproportionate impact on black victims.

After Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder in the death of Martin, gun violence prevention advocates again highlighted the role of Florida's self-defense law. But some in the media, due to a misunderstanding of the statute's breadth, have falsely claimed that the law played no role in the trial.

On the July 15 edition of CNN's New Day, co-hosts Chris Cuomo and Kate Bolduan agreed that the law played no role in the case.

In fact, Florida's self-defense laws set the framework by which Zimmerman was tried, setting the standard by which the jury would have to determine if Martin's death resulted from the justifiable use of force. Indeed, the jury instructions in the case specifically mention that “If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in anyplace where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground” and use deadly force. 

From the instructions

In deciding whether George Zimmerman was justified in the use of deadly force, you must judge him by the circumstances by which he was surrounded at the time the force was used. The danger facing George Zimmerman need not have been actual; however, to justify the use of deadly force, the appearance of danger must have been so real that a reasonably cautious and prudent person under the same circumstances would have believed that the danger could be avoided only through the use of that force. Based upon appearances, George Zimmerman must have actually believed that the danger was real.

If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in anyplace where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground 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.

Former State Sen. Dan Gelber, who was a leading opponent of Stand Your Ground's enactment, noted on his blog that those instructions differed widely from the instruction that would have been read to a jury before that law took effect. At that time, jury instructions would have stated:

"The defendant cannot justify the use of force likely to cause death or great bodily harm unless he used every reasonable means within his power and consistent with his own safety to avoid the danger before resorting to that force.

The fact that the defendant was wrongfully attacked cannot justify his use of force likely to cause death or great bodily harm if by retreating he could have avoided the need to use that force."

Florida's Stand Your Ground law also had ramifications on the case before the trial began and will continue now that it has concluded.

Shortly after Martin's killing began receiving media attention in March 2012, in part because Zimmerman had not been arrested, Sanford's City Manager issued a statement claiming that because Zimmerman had said he acted in self-defense when police questioned him at the scene, “law enforcement was PROHIBITED from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time” due to the state's self-defense law.

Additionally, Stand Your Ground will likely prevent Martin's family from seeking damages in a Florida civil lawsuit against Zimmerman. From The Wall Street Journal:

Attorneys for Mr. Martin's family said they are considering filing a civil lawsuit against Mr. Zimmerman, though they haven't made a decision. “We're still trying to make sense of the verdict in the criminal case,” said Benjamin Crump, a lawyer for the family. “We'll be talking about our options going forward in the coming days.”

Such a case would face high hurdles, legal observers say. Mr. Zimmerman can seek immunity from civil lawsuits under Florida's so-called Stand Your Ground law--something his attorney said he planned to do. “In effect, there will be no civil suits,” said Tamara Lave, a University of Miami law professor. “If there is a civil suit filed, it will be dismissed, and future ones will be barred.”