George Zimmerman's Excuse

Why do critics of "stand your ground" laws keep resorting to a phony example?

The New York Times reports that George Zimmerman's murder trial, which began on Monday in Sanford, Florida, is "spotlighting Florida's Stand Your Ground law," even though "that law has not been invoked in this case." Writing in The Guardian two weeks ago, Sadhbh Walshe likewise claimed "the trial will shine a spotlight on Florida's controversial self-defense laws," although she also conceded that Zimmerman's defense does not depend on the right to stand your ground. 

Ever since Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch organizer, shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager, on a rainy night in February 2012, critics of Florida-style self-defense laws have used the case to illustrate how eliminating the duty to retreat when attacked in public excuses unjustified violence. They are having a hard time letting go, although by now it is abundantly clear that the right to stand your ground is not relevant to the question of Zimmerman's guilt. 

Zimmerman, who called police to report a "suspicious" person, possibly a burglar, after seeing Martin walking through the neighborhood, says the 17-year-old assaulted him, knocking him to the ground with a punch to the face and repeatedly smacking his head against the pavement. He says his pistol became visible during the fight and Martin began reaching for it, at which point Zimmerman, fearing for his life, grabbed the gun and shot Martin in the chest. 

By Zimmerman's account, then, there was no chance to retreat, so the right to stand your ground has nothing to do with his defense. Still, says the The New York Times, "Florida’s Stand Your Ground law…was cited by the Sanford police as the reason officers did not initially arrest Mr. Zimmerman." But the provision cited by police, although it was included in the same 2005 bill that eliminated the duty to retreat, is unrelated to the "stand your ground" principle. 

The police said they did not charge Zimmerman right away because of a provision that prohibits a law enforcement agency from arresting someone who claims to have used deadly force in self-defense "unless it determines that there is probable cause that the force that was used was unlawful." In other words, the fact that Zimmerman killed Martin (which he has always admitted) was not enough; the police also needed reason to doubt his self-defense claim. 

Whether or not that seems like a reasonable requirement to you, it is completely distinct from the right to stand your ground. Even a state that imposes a duty to retreat could nevertheless require police to meet this probable-cause test before arresting someone who claims self-defense. 

Yet news outlets still explicitly refer to Zimmerman's prosecution as a "'Stand Your Ground' case" or imply that's an apt description. "Zimmerman Trial to Test 'Stand Your Ground' Law," declared the headline on a June 10 story from WJXT, a TV station in Jacksonville, Florida.  The Los Angeles Times also perceives this connection, even while admitting "it is unclear exactly how the law might be used." 

Reuters reports that "Florida's aggressive self-defense laws" set "a high bar for the prosecution." In reality, that bar is set by the requirement, hardly unique to Florida, that the government prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. 

Commentators who think the Zimmerman case vindicates their opposition to "stand your ground" laws never really explain how. Miami Herald columnist Fred Grimm simply asserts that the case "may turn on the Stand Your Ground statute." Grasping at straws, syndicated columnist Mary Sanchez says Zimmerman "may attempt to invoke the law if he is found guilty." In her Guardian essay, Walshe argues that "his case certainly illustrates how stand-your-ground could be used" (emphasis added). 

Perhaps eliminating the duty to retreat really does produce a "'kill at will' statute" (as Walshe puts it) that allows "unfettered use of deadly force" (as Think Progress avers) and results in "sanctioned murder" (as Sanchez asserts). But if so, why do critics of that policy keep resorting to this phony example?

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  • ||

    Yet news outlets still explicitly refer to Zimmerman's prosecution as a "'Stand Your Ground' case" or imply that's an apt description.

    What, you expected intellectual honesty, unspun facts? From so-called NYT journalists? From Reuters?

    HA!

  • ||

    Oops, forgot to blockquote the first paragraph.

  • Libertymike||

    No harm done.

  • Almanian!||

    BULLSHIT! I'M SUING!

  • ||

    Stand your ground, PS!

  • Acosmist||

    It's spotlighting a law that hasn't been invoked because YOU IDIOTS ARE SPOTLIGHTING IT.

    It's a complete fabrication of a narrative.

    It's like a car commercial telling you that "People sure are talking about that new car, huh?"

  • RightNut||

    What new car is that?!

  • Acosmist||

    It's the one I happen to be advertising. You should hear the buzz on the street about it. Wackness!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    But if so, why do critics of that policy keep resorting to this phony example?

    Because it's convenient, and the players are oh so close to being the right colors.

  • wwhorton||

    When this story first broke, you could almost hear the collective sigh when people actually saw a photograph of George Zimmerman. Although...Hispanic, German last name...I'm surprised nobody's working the Nazi expat angle here.

  • ||

    What, so now everyone that grew up in Brazi...stol County, RI is guilty?

  • ||

    lotta portuguese in rhode island...

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    If what Zimmerman says is true then common law self defense (even under a duty to retreat) would justify his actions. According to his account, even if Zimmerman did not satisfy the duty to retreat when he confronted Martin, when Martin attacked him as alleged he would be under no requirement. Shame on liberals who often talk a good game about offender's rights as they attack them here.

  • Alec Leamas||

    They're for the rights of the accused when the accused fit into their oppression narrative. Had Martin wrested the sidearm from Zimmerman and murdered him where he lay, do you think we would ever have heard about this? All you need to remember is how they mount an all out media campaign against any man accused of rape on the sayso of any woman. They commit to a narrative and become impervious to gaps and inconsistencies in the accuser's story and the release of exculpatory evidence.

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    I don't have any numbers on this, but given that blacks are arrested disproportionately for crimes that self defense could be offered as a defense for, I bet restricting self defense opportunities has the overall effect of...convicting more black people.

  • Rob||

    Had Martin wrested the sidearm from Zimmerman and murdered him where he lay, do you think we would ever have heard about this?

    Yes. This would have been another example of why we need more gun control. As a bonus, it would have also be spun to show how law abiding citizens can not keep control of their weapon.

  • Monty Crisco||

    Now you're gettin' it! Failure of the state (in this case, to protect us from crime or assault) ALWAYS justifies MORE intrusion by the state!!!
    YAAAAYYY!! IT's fun!

  • D.D.||

    I'm a bit confused and hoping for some help. If I'm doing nothing illegal, how do people justify a duty on my part to retreat before illegality or the threat of illegality (eg. violence)? Is this not essentially writing cowardice in to the legal code? Why should I surrender my right to be doing something legal in a place of my choosing because of someone else's actions?

    When did this happen? Because when I was a kid growing up I was taught to stand my ground. I didn't realize until the Zimmerman case that there was even a legal duty to retreat.

  • sarcasmic||

    Last year some kid started swinging at my stepson, and rather than hit him back my stepson pushed the bully away. He thought he was doing the right thing.

    As a result my stepson was suspended for a few days for being involved in a fight. Didn't matter who the aggressor was. Being the target of a bully is grounds for suspension.

    Yeah. It's fucked up.

    He learned his less on though. If it happens again, being that he'll be suspended anyway, he's going to draw blood.

  • wwhorton||

    I get into this debate with my wife who taught elementary school for ten years. I was raised to never start a fight, but to fight back if someone does something aggressive towards me or my friends. When we talk about how we'll raise our kids, I advocate the "break the bully's nose" school, where my wife is a proponent of "go find an adult because violence is wrong." Although I completely disagree with her and plan on teaching my children how to dislocate someone's shoulder by the age of 4, she pointed out that the reasoning behind suspending everyone involved is sometimes to keep them away from each other until cooler heads prevail. I don't necessarily agree with it, but the reasoning's a lot more solid than "fighting is naughty."

  • JWatts||

    she pointed out that the reasoning behind suspending everyone involved is sometimes to keep them away from each other until cooler heads prevail.

    That's not the way the kids are going to see it. The defender instead learns that he bears the same penalty as the aggressor. The aggressor learns that he won't be punished any more than his designated victim.

    It's a bad standard.

  • sarcasmic||

    In this case they were both suspended, but for different amount. The aggressor got five days while his victim only got two (or three, can't remember).

  • Volren||

    The counterargument is that they are still kept separate even if only the aggressor(s) are suspended.

  • ||

    my wife is an elementary school teacher for 20+ years (don't worry she's young and not 60+ with a hair-bun) and says the same thing explaining the reason for suspending both. I get it but the law of the jungle stipulates defend yourself.

  • Hash Brown||

    Traditionally, you only have a duty to retreat before using deadly force. IOW, if you can safely avoid taking a life, you should do so, even if the life you would take is that of an attacker.

  • wwhorton||

    I'm sure that the argument against "stand your ground" is essentially that, by making self-defense as a legal defense more difficult, you make the decision to use lethal force more weighty. I think the idea is that you'd rather err on the side of illegality so that you can use discretion to "forgive" cases that merit it, rather than issue carte blanche and only be able to prosecute the most egregious abuses of the law.

    Or, it's because some people assume that most other people are homicidal maniacs just looking for an excuse, so they'd rather have The Authorities handle all that self-defense stuff (and the scary, icky guns that go with it) instead of a bunch of crazy rednecks who'll just run around shooting black people.

    I tend to believe the latter.

  • Loki||

    I tend to believe the latter.

    Just to clarify, are you saying that you believe that "most other people are homicidal maniacs..." or are you saying that's what you believe those arguing stad your ground believe? I suspect it's option number 2, but just figured I'd make sure.

  • Loki||

    *...arguing against stand you ground...

  • sarcasmic||

    All that matters in this case is skin color. That's it. All this talk about laws is just silly talk.

    A white person killed a black person. Racism. Straight up.

  • Acosmist||

    Even if it wasn't a white person, it was. It's full on ain't care.

  • creech||

    Killed? According to Mayor Nutter, it was an "assassination." Given that Nutter was 1,000 miles away at the time, I suppose he isn't being called as a witness. Nor will he apologize if
    Mr. Zimmerman is acquitted.

  • Rich||

    When Zimmerman is acquitted, perhaps he'll sue Nutter for "misspeaking".

  • sarcasmic||

    He's not going to be acquitted. An all female jury will not let this baby-killer walk free. He's gonna fry.

  • some guy||

    No way they get everyone to agree beyond a shadow of a doubt. Worst case is a hung jury.

  • Loki||

    When Zimmerman is acquitted...

    I find it quaint that so many people around here still have faith in our justice system, especially a "jury of your peers."

  • The Late P Brooks||

    eliminating the duty to retreat when attacked in public excuses unjustified violence.

    It has been well established by experts, if you or someone you know are being bullied you should ask someone in a position of authority for help, instead of "playing hero".

  • Rich||

    "Playing hero? OK, we don't need you to do that."

  • Almanian!||

    I live in Michigan. In Detroit, we call cases like this "today's news". How this got to be a cause celebre I don't entirely understand, but a bunch of people are pushing their agendas on Trayvon Martin's corpse and George Zimmerman's right to self defense.

    Kinda like Sandy Hook, Gabby Giffords, BP oil spill, Benghazi, IRS issues (what IRS issues? LOOK! NSA LEAKS!). Whatever the issues, what's actually happening/heppened is less important (in terms of news) than the spin and pushing an agenda.

    Which is why I quit watching/reading/listening to "the news" years ago. It's all spin and sound bites and bullshit. Just like this case.

  • Rob||

    Whatever the issues, what's actually happening/happened is less important (in terms of news) than the spin and pushing an agenda.

    Isn't that true of basically all news?

    On a different note, it's good to see another Michigander in these parts.

  • Rich||

    why do critics of that policy keep resorting to this phony example?

    For the worst of all reasons: Because they want to.

  • ||

    Why do critics of "stand your ground" laws keep resorting to a phony example?

    Because it works? For people whose morality is guided entirely by outcomes rather than method, it doesn't matter if you have to lie, cheat, steal, or kill as long as the outcome results in a greater good.

  • Anders||

    The media would very much like to make this case about Stand Your Ground for their usual mendacious reasons, and facts be damned.

    If Zimmerman is telling the truth it sounds like he had no ability to retreat. Even in a state where you are compelled to retreat (California??) it is hard to make the argument that one can do that when one is overpowered by a man who is smashing your skull into the pavement.

    Florida has no such duty to retreat.

    The prosecution's case is weak, Murder 2 was a bridge WAY too far, and the ad hominems are already starting. They're implying Zimmerman's a psycho, a racist, a wannabe cop, etc.

    The prosecution's case will fail on the merits. In the meantime, Corey has effectively destroyed this man's life and damaged his family.

    On acquittal, expect to see a malicious prosecution suit from Zimmerman's team.

  • Anders||

    One thing that immediately strikes one about this case is that Corey avoided going to a Grand Jury.

    In Florida she would only be compelled to send Zimmerman to a Grand Jury in a 1st degree murder case. In other states, ALL shoots go to the Grand Jury regardless. Shoots ruled justifable at GJ are No Billed, otherwise they go forward.

    Why did Corey decide to side step the GJ step here? It doesn't speak to confidence in the case, and she has a history of pulling this.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    The media and other critics of "Stand your ground" laws are throwing everything they can at such laws, and at "must issue" and dozens of other 2nd Amendment issues, in the desperate hope that some of it will stick. They have, for the time being, lost this debate. The majority of the public doesn't like gun control and associated laws, doesn't trust the police to be the only armed force in society, and doesn't care about the lives of criminals and attackers. That may change at some time in the future - these things do - but right now the Liberal Intellectual Radical Progressive Left is absolutely FRANTIC to vein some traction on this; the peasants are revolting and just Wont. Do. What. They're. Told.

  • trshmnstr||

    To the foot soldiers, it may be frustrating, but the progressives that have been around a while know the song and dance. This is a multi-generational fight for them. If they can't get this generation, they'll work on the next from a younger age. Soon you'll see victims of gun violence on Sesame Street, and anti-gun slants in the history books. You'll see celebrities hawking charities for gun violence victims 24/7 and concerts dedicated to ending the bloodbath.

    We've been through this before, they're just warming up on this issue.

  • Loki||

    why do critics of that policy keep resorting to this phony example?

    Probably because they don't have any real examples.

    "Duty to retreat" is bullshit anyway. I wouldn't hold anything against someone who blew away an attacker even if they were standing up with a clear path behind them (IOW even if they could try to run). For one thing, say you turn and run. Odds are your attacker is probably a younger fairly athletic male. If you're older and/ or out of shape, they're going to catch you from behind. Hardly a good position to defend yourself from. So I really don't mind if someone in that situation quickly assesses their chances of escape and concludes that they're better off just shooting the SOB. /2 cents

  • chorizo||

    If you only look at the few seconds of the fight and shooting, Zimmerman should walk.

    Does Zimmerman bear any blame for acting recklessly by exiting his car with a gun to confront a stranger doing nothing illegal, including following him on foot into a residential complex and around the corner of a building (look at the map of where his body was found - nowhere near Zimmerman's car).

    Libertarians rightly gripe when cops resort to deadly force unnecessarily; why does a guy playing make-believe cop get a pass?

  • DrAwkward||

    He gets a pass because he did nothing illegal. It's his neighborhood, and he has conceal carry permit. Self defense is not really that complicated.

  • Volren||

    You can make arguments on either side on whether Zimmerman's behavior was unjustified or not, but assuming his story is true he didn't do anything that would give Martin justification to attack him either.

    Following him may have been unnecessary but the use of force was not considering he was already under attack. If Zimmerman just opened fire with no provocation then any libertarian would say he was guilty of a crime.

  • Anders||

    "Does Zimmerman bear any blame for acting recklessly by exiting his car with a gun to confront a stranger doing nothing illegal, including following him on foot into a residential complex and around the corner of a building (look at the map of where his body was found - nowhere near Zimmerman's car)."

    - The area experiences a good deal of burglaries, hence the active Neighborhood Watch.
    - A lone male in a hoodie walking around a gated community at night, is perhaps suspicious.
    - Keeping an eye on someone is not stalking or any other crime.
    - Disparity of Force: St. T's younger, faster, and probably stronger than Zimmerman. Carrying a weapon in the event of an altercation would only be sensible.
    - As it turns out the judge has suppressed evidence that St. T was absolutely not a Saint.

  • wwhorton||

    He didn't follow him into a "residential complex," he followed him in his (Zimmerman's) own neighborhood. Are you telling me that if I see someone walking down the street in front of my house I can't follow him? And are you honestly maintaining that there is a legal burden on ME to avoid contact with someone walking around in my own neighborhood?

  • DrAwkward||

    Also, a cop who is being straddled and pounded into a sidewalk can shoot the guy. That is not something libertarians would gripe about.

  • Dan Clore||

    Yeah, but a cop can chase somedown for no good reason and attack him and get away with starting the fight in the first place.

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  • Anders||

    I tried to work from other people's homes and got shot by Neighborhood Watch.

    Dude, it wasn't worth the Ariel Atom.

  • GregMax||

    Just for the record - a person with two "arms" attached at the shoulder can impose deadly force on another person. Referring to Martin as "unarmed" is idiotic. But that is all part of the psychology of making Martin the victim.

  • Eric Bana||

    Let's not forget that NBC and another news organization SPECIALLY EDITED the recordings to make it sound like Zimmerman called Martin a "coon" and that Zimmerman said "He looks suspicious--he looks black" even though he said "cold" and he answered the dispatcher's question about Martin's race (he didn't say the two things together). That's something you can't even make up.

    And remember that if Obama had a son, he'd look like Martin (or say his first name "Trayvon" to endear him a little more although nobody says "George").

  • ||

    If you have to lie to make a case, then you dont have a case worth making.

    If you have a case worth making, all you have to do is tell the truth.

  • ||

    This.

    NBC was willing to put a man in prison regardless of facts to fit a narrative.

    That's about as low as you can get.

  • Ron||

    Did anyone listen to the star witness yesterday when she claimed that Martin said "there was some crazy nigger cracker following him". Based on that Martin was also profiling. these brings to question tow things, why isn't the media all over martins profiling and doesn't two profilers cancel each other out.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Because only caucasians (and those that can be conveniently pigeonholed as caucasians) can be racists….unlike the privileged underclasses and the Intellectual Elite (who can barely open their mouths without letting loose a torrent of racial stereotypes).

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  • J_West||

    You have to look at the politics behind this. This case is an exercise in muscle flexing by the various race hustler organizations and their liberal allies. Their objectives?
    * Gut the 2nd Amendment.
    * Criminalize the right to self defense.
    * Further stigmatize white people as "racists."
    * Relive the glory days of the civil rights movements and not incidentally push more of their agenda.

    This is why libertarians need to stand behind Zimmerman. Should be interesting to see the outcome if a not guilty verdict is handed down. If there is rioting ala the first Rodney King trial, are libertarians going to exercise their 2nd Amendment rights? Or fold up?

  • J_West||

    I don't have any numbers on this, but given that blacks are arrested disproportionately for crimes that self defense could be offered as a defense for, I bet restricting self defense opportunities has the overall effect of...convicting more black people.

    The reason you may not find the numbers is that blacks are not arrested disproportionately. Criminal justice statistics demonstrate that blacks commit a number of Part I UCR offenses far out of proportion to their percentage of the population. For example, something like half the murders in the USA are committed by blacks. Of course, this is covered up by the mainstream media. It's one reason that the media ran with the Duke U phoney "rape" case--they needed that Great White Defendant. And why they are pushing the Zimmerman-as-killer-of-innocent black youth story.

    I'll also note that blacks are frequently not charged with crimes that would get a white person nailed to the wall. For example, there have been a series of black-on-white flash mob attacks over recent years which have been largely swept under the rug by the media, as well as not being considered hatecrime by the DoJ.

    Look into the issue and you'll find more...

  • Dan Clore||

    One of the first things that came out after the Trayvon case made the news was an interview with the authors of the Stand Your Ground law. They said that it didn't apply in the case, because (with lots of caveats about what was known at the time, etc.) the shooting wasn't self-defense. Zimmerman pursued Trayvon for no good reason and was the aggressor in the case; it doesn't become self-defense when you attacked someone just because they kick your ass. If anyone had the right to stand his ground in this case, it was Trayvon, but he tried to avoid the confrontation.

  • Chad Brick||

    The right to stand one's ground is central to this case: MARTIN'S right to stand HIS ground. He tried to walk away, then run. Zimmerman kept coming. At what point was Martin justified in turning around and clocking the crazy-bleep cracker that was chasing after him in the dark for no darned good reason (and packing heat, no less).

    I doubt Zimmerman committed murder. He was, however, culpably negligent that night and deserving of a manslaughter conviction. He was the aggressor, he was the one that was not minding his own business, he was the one with training, he was the only adult involved, he was the one that decided to bring a gun to a walk to the convenience store. He picked a fight, apparently got his heiney handed to him, and felt he had to kill someone to extract himself from a situation that HE created through his belligerance and ignorance. 3-5 years sounds about right to me.

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