Soap Box:  "Stand your ground" shooting

May 16, 2012

On the night of February 26, 2012, a white-Hispanic man, George Zimmerman (age 28), who happened to be the neighborhood watch captain of his neighborhood shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin (age 17), in Sanford, Florida.  I remember reading about it not too long after it happened.  The man claimed he was attacked and shot in self-defense.  The local police, citing the Florida ďstand your groundĒ law (which allows you to use deadly force to defend yourself instead of retreating), said it was a justified shooting and didnít arrest or file charges against Zimmerman.  It seemed like an open and shut case of a delinquent teen attacking and mugging the wrong person.  And that would have been the end of the story if not for the teenís family and supporters starting protests to bring the details of the encounter into the light of day.  Once the details were known, it seems it wasnít as simple as it was portrayed.

It seems that Martin did not commit an unprovoked attack on Zimmerman, nor was Martin a delinquent looking for trouble.  Zimmerman spotted Martin (wearing a hoodie on this rainy night) in his gated community and called 911 to report a suspicious character.  And thatís what the neighborhood watch members are supposed to do.  They even have a sign on the gate saying theyíll do that.  Zimmerman reported that Martin looked like he was on drugs and up to no good.  Said he was looking around (implying he was casing the houses for crime).  Said something was wrong with him.   Zimmerman said, ďThese assholes, they always get awayĒ.  When Martin looked at Zimmerman and tried to get away, Zimmerman informed the 911 operator and gave chase on foot.  The 911 operator tells Zimmerman not to follow Martin, but Zimmerman does anyway.  Remember he is angry and has expressed frustration at the ďassholesĒ that get away.

Zimmerman is a frequent caller to 911.  It seems that many people that come into his neighborhood are immediately greeted with suspicion.  He had called 911 approximately 47 times over the last couple of years to report what he deemed as suspicious people.  When he saw a black kid wearing a hoodie in his neighborhood on Feb. 26, he called again.

But Trayvon Martin was not a criminal.  He actually was staying in a house in Zimmermanís neighborhood at the time.  He was staying with his fatherís fiancť.  Martin had ventured out to the local convenience store to buy a can of tea and a bag of skittles.  As he was walking back to his home, he noticed that he was being followed.  On the phone with his girlfriend at the time, he told her that someone was following him.  He tried to get away.

Zimmerman caught up with Martin, a struggle ensued, and Zimmerman ended up shooting and killing Martin with this Keltec 9mm handgun.  But the actual details of the struggle are murky, and we only have Zimmermanís side of the story.  Zimmerman claims Martin approached him, punched him in the face breaking his nose, knocked him down, and started slamming his head on the sidewalk.  He says he shot in self-defense.  Others say that the shooting was racially motivated, and that Zimmerman is guilty of murder, or at least manslaughter.  Several people called 911 that night to report two men fighting, screaming, and then a gunshot is heard.

First of all, from just the evidence of this incident, we can't determine whether or not Zimmerman is a racist.  While there is certainly some racial animosity between the Hispanic community and the black community in general (just like white and black relations), we don't know if  Zimmerman had bad intentions toward Martin because he was black.  I do believe Zimmerman profiled Martin and assumed that a black teenager in a hoodie is a criminal.  I'm not sure that's racism, but it certainly is stereotyping.  However, it should be noted that according to police reports, it seems that Zimmerman's previous 911 calls are regarding black people.

Since Zimmerman pursued Martin, that makes him the agitator/aggressor.  Under normal circumstances, if youíre the aggressor, you lose your legal right of self-defense.  In other words, if you pick a fight, you canít legally shoot someone and claim self-defense if they decide to bop you in the nose.  There are two exceptions, which Iíll outline later.  Zimmerman did have evidence that he was in a fight.  He had abrasions on the back of his head and a bloody nose.

From Martinís point of view, he had an aggressive stalker following him.  When confronted, he too would have been afforded Floridaís stand your ground law, although he wasnít armed.  Martinís girlfriend says she hears Martin ask someone why they are following him.  She hears the person respond, asking what Martin is doing there, and then a struggle.  The phone goes dead.  This is not a simple case of who threw the first punch.  Zimmerman as the aggressor might not be able to legally claim self-defense, even if Martin struck first.  And Martin would be within his rights to attack his perceived stalker if he felt he was in danger.  It seems that neither identified themselves, though I think that responsibility should have fallen on the shoulders of Zimmerman given he was the neighborhood watch and the one that started this confrontation.  Also consider this, Zimmerman has claimed that after Martin approached him, he reached for his cell phone and then was attacked.  If you were being followed by someone, they confronted you, and then reached for something in their pocket or on their belt, what would you think?  I think a normal person would assume the person was going for a weapon.  The best course for someone in Martinís position might be to take a preemptive strike.

If youíre the aggressor, there are two ways to regain your legal claim of self-defense.  One is that you clearly make it known that you are withdrawing from the confrontation.  If after that, the person continues to attack you, you can legally claim self-defense.  The second is that you are being beat so bad that you fear death or serious injury, AND there is no way for you to get away (i.e. you do have a duty to retreat if you were the initial aggressor), AND the ONLY way to stop the attack is with deadly force.  So, did Zimmerman reclaim the legal right of self-defense?  Was he really being beat so badly that he feared death or serious bodily injury?  Thatís hard to judge because itís so subjective.  The law usually refers to what a reasonable person would think.  While Zimmerman did have injuries, the cops and ER personnel that night didnít think them serious enough to bandage or send him to the hospital.    Did Zimmerman fear for his life, or did he fear getting beat up?

And what of Martinís self-defense rights?  He was followed, and then chased by someone he didnít know.  And if weíre to believe Zimmermanís story, Martin saw him reaching for something.  Could have been the phone, or maybe it was the gun.  Did Martin actually see the gun?  If he saw the gun, then Martin was clearly and legally fighting for his life.

So whatís the legal outcome in this situation?  Both men can make the claim of self-defense and whoever lives gets to go free?  Zimmerman clearly was the initiator/aggressor, so we at least know he initially lost his legal right to claim self-defense.  If his version of the events is true, he may have well regained that legal right to claim self-defense.  But I donít believe he has the moral right.  I support the right to arm and defend oneself, but I think the law needs to be clarified and there needs to be some kind of punishment for those that initiate deadly encounters.  Even if Zimmerman was forced into defending himself by the reactions of Martin, heís still the reason and cause that the confrontation even took place.  He disregarded the rules of neighborhood watch associations (which also say he shouldnít be armed) and the directive of the 911 operator by getting out of his car and confronting Martin.  I think Zimmerman was emboldened by his firearm into confronting Martin.  I think he deserves some kind of criminal responsibility for the outcome, even though the current law might not afford it.  The laws need to be changed so that people are held accountable for incidents they cause.

The bottom line is that this tragedy happened because of the actions of George Zimmerman.  He profiled Trayvon Martin as a criminal because he was a black teen in a hoodie.  He followed, then chased Martin, against the directive of the 911 operator.  From Martin's point of view, he was being aggressively pursued by a stalker.  While Martin isn't on trial (though Zimmerman's attorney will make it seem that way), he clearly was fighting for self-defense.  After weeks of protests, a special prosecutor finally examined the case and brought a second-degree murder charge against Zimmerman.  Whether or not he'll be convicted of this, or a lesser charge, will be determined by the court and a jury.

Jeff Polston

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