The New York Times Gets Florida's Self-Defense Law Wrong. Again.

In a front-page story about Angela B. Corey, the special prosecutor who will decide whether to charge George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin, The New York Times again misstates the relevant provisions of Florida's self-defense law:

Mr. Zimmerman said he acted in self-defense, and law enforcement officials chose not to charge him under Florida's lenient self-defense law, known as Stand Your Ground. Under the law, any person who perceives a threat to his life is not required to attempt a retreat and has a right to use a weapon. It requires law enforcement officials to prove that a suspect did not act in self-defense, and sets the case on a slow track.

First, the self-defense exemption does not apply to "any person who perceives a threat to his life"; that perception has to be reasonable—a crucial point, because otherwise panicky people could get away with murder. Second, the right to "stand your ground" seems irrelevant to Zimmerman's self-defense claim, because in the fight he describes there was no chance for him to safely retreat. Third, law enforcement officials do not have to "prove that a suspect did not act in self-defense" before arresting him. As with any other crime, they need only have probable cause to believe his actions were unlawful. At trial, prosecutors do have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was not acting in self-defense, but Florida's law is not unusual in that respect. 

The Times also claims that "in high-profile cases, the constitutional principle of the presumption of innocence can be especially strong." I'm not sure what that means. As a matter of law, the presumption of innocence is supposed to be equally strong in every case, regardless of how much public attention it attracts. And as a practical matter, I would think the publicity surrounding this case will, if anything, make Corey more likely to charge Zimmerman and jurors more likely to find him guilty.

In my column last week, I listed three things people don't know about the Trayvon Martin case (but think they do).

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  • lightning||

    Mr. Sullum, if you really want to interest most reason readers how about this story:

    New York Times gets its facts straight.

  • ||

    Unlikely to ever be a substantively truthful headline.

  • kinnath||

    Do we have a forensics report to read yet? Hmmm?

  • Fluffy||

    The Times also claims that "in high-profile cases, the constitutional principle of the presumption of innocence can be especially strong." I'm not sure what that means.

    I think that it's true that it's possible to squeeze "reasonable doubt" out of a situation as you peruse its details more and more.

    So a high-profile case might make the "reasonable doubt" burden higher, because as the details are ground into the public's face over and over, more and more fanciful "possible scenarios that fit the evidence" get put out there.

  • mad libertarian guy||

    Especially when it turns in to the inevitable TEAM fight and people dutifully flock themselves together with their respective sides.

  • ||

    Agreed. And I think the quote isn't saying it becomes more constitutional or more legally important, merely that the wide range of facts allows jurors, as you said, to read in more possible scenarios to allow for innocence.

  • sloopyinca||

  • Old Mexican||

    Under the law, any person who perceives a threat to his life is not required to attempt a retreat and has a right to use a weapon.


    The law does not state anything of the sort. This is an outright lie.

  • Mainer2||

    The NYT comment was not about reasonable doubt, though, it was regarding the presumption of innocence.

  • Loki||

    The New York Times again misstates the relevant provisions of Florida's self-defense law

    It's almost like the NYT has some kind of agenda or something. /sarc

  • sarcasmic||

    Liberals distorting the facts and using outright lies to make a point?

    I'm shocked!

    Shocked I tell you!

    Shocked!

  • ||

    OT: Sheriff Joe's thick blue wall loses a couple of bricks.

  • ||

    Moriarity said Aubuchon "disagrees with all of the findings. The fact of the matter is that if every lawyer in every case was subjected to the scrutiny that was given to this case, no lawyer would be able to practice - and the lawyers should be aware of that."

    Feature not bug.

  • ||

    It's almost like they're doing it on purpose... naaaaaaah.

  • Randian||

    Can anyone recall another time when the media so categorically got the facts wrong, from the beginning of this thing forward?

    I cannot recall such a time.

  • SugarFree||

    Oklahoma City comes to mind.

  • SugarFree||

    Oh, and the Anthrax mailings.

  • ||

    Any time it fits their agenda?

  • R C Dean||

    Well, health care reform springs to mind.

    And, shortly before that, the coverage of the Obama 2008 campaign.

  • plu1959||

    Duke Lax

  • SugarFree||

    regardlerss of how much public attention

    The extra "r" is for Reason. Although, I'm one to talk when it comes to typos.

  • ||

    Where does everybody come down on this now? I remember when the story broke most here were in the Martin camp. Has that changed as more information has come out? Anybody change their mind?

    I'm waiting to form an opinion. I can see how it can be argued that Zimmerman initiated the violence by following Martin and deserved an ass beating. Of course, even if one initiates the altercation and deserves an ass beating, HOW MUCH of an ass beating do you deserve prior to being able to defend yourself? Does he have the option to beat you to death because you initiated?

    Interesting case.

  • Zeb||

    I started out with strong sympathy for Martin, but as things have progressed, I moved in the direction of a firm "I don't know". From the information I have at this point, it seems like not charging Zimmerman may well be the appropriate outcome. But I don't know shit.

  • ||

    I'm confident that Zimmerman is definitely guilty of criminal stupidity and cop wannabeism. Anything else is up in the air.

  • Loki||

    HOW MUCH of an ass beating do you deserve prior to being able to defend yourself?

    Knocked on your ass once is about what I'd say. When Martin jumped on top of him and started smacking his head into the ground is about where I think most people would reasonably percieve a threat to their life and, being impossible to escape, be justified in blowing the asshole away.

    When the story first broke, it seemed like Zimmerman overreacted, but after more facts have come out it doesn't seem that way to me anymore. I would say let's have a trial and get it over with, but it's going to be impossible to find 12 impartial jurors at this point. Plus the media circus of yet another "trial of the century is going to naseating.

    Actually I still say let's put it in front of a jury, but this story is going to suck a big hairy cock no matter what happens.

  • Loki||

    Although, for the record, I still think Zimmerman shouldn't have been out playing Rambo and is a majoe douchebag to boot. But it seems more likely that Martin was the one who escalated the situation into one where a reasonable person would percieve a threat to their life. IMO, my 2 cents, etc.

  • Alice Bowie||

    We are really not sure what happened.

    There is no video.

    There are really no credible eyewitnesses outside of a girl friend on the phone and the defendant.

    I say this guy should WALK CLEAN.

    And I agree, he should not have been playing RAMBO.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    However much of an asshat Zimmerman turns out to be when the facts are in, I'm still disgusted by the blatant attempt of the Left to exploit this case to tear down self-defense law. There's no reason stemming from this case to strike down "Stand Your Ground".

  • Alice Bowie||

    They need to strike down the part where no formal investigation outside of the interview with "Bubba the Cop".

    That's a problem.

    I think Zimmerman is innocent...as is pretty much anyone in a Stand Your Ground State who starts a fight, loses, and shoots the other person with no witness or video to disprove the defendants story.

  • Enough About Palin||

    I think Martin was a thug, a thief, that he was casing homes on his way back from the store and that he attacked Zimmerman because that's just what thugs do.

  • SIV||

    It was all an unfortunate mistake. Trayvon was looking to beat down an unarmed cracker.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Just have the fucking trial already! How hard is it to charge a man with manslaughter?

  • T||

    Y'know, guys, what I haven't seen is any discussion on this here website about who is objectively racist in this whole mess. Could somebody explain that to me?

  • Zeb||

    If you can't identify the racist, then it's probably you.

    (just kidding, in case it wasn't obvious)

    The serious answer is Al Sharpton.

  • T||

    I'm not racist. I hate everyone approximately equally. Skin color is irrelevant to the depths of my spite.

  • ant1sthenes||

    Me, I'm hardcore antiracist. I think that anyone that uses the n word on a regular basis should be kicked out of the country, no exceptions. No place in America for that sort of attitude. In fact, they should send people like that to Africa -- it's like, poetic justice or whatever, and it'll broaden their horizons and stuff.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    The Left seems to be really irritated by the concept of "presumption of innocence" in this case.

    I think if they had their druthers the presumption of innocence would be removed for any case they deem a "hate crime".

  • Alice Bowie||

    That's because the "presumption of innocence" is so so subjective even today in the USA.

    For most blacks and the poor, there is no "presumption of innocence" since they don't have the money for BAIL.

    The Presumption of innocence is only for those Americans that can afford BAIL or if the JUSTICE SYSTEM chooses not to put you in jail in the 1st place.

  • Alice Bowie||


    First, the self-defense exemption does not apply to "any person who perceives a threat to his life"; that perception has to be reasonable—a crucial point, because otherwise panicky people could get away with murder.

    Still, Bubba the cop gets to decide reasonable. Right? That phrase doesn't really change anything.

    The way the law is written, panicky people could get away with murder if the local Cop says it is OK and the State Attorney decides not to pursue it.

  • Alice Bowie||

    BTW, I think Zimmerman is innocent the way the law is written. In addition, one may argue that Zimmerman may have been one of those "panicky people" after Martin punched him in the face. However, we'll never know.

  • Alice Bowie||

    And, we should say :

    panicky people could get away with murder.

    We should say
    panicky people could get away with killing people.

  • ant1sthenes||

    I think they meant murder as a moral judgment of an instance of killing, rather than a legal judgment. Killing, in and of itself, is not a useful description.

  • Azathoth!!||

    Given what we know, I suspect the reason they seem to be dragging their feet about charging Zimmerman is that they're more than aware that there is no case. I suspect the reports we're not getting to see, forensics, ballistics, autopsy, as well as the events that occurred after the shooting initially happened all make this whole thing very clear. And now they're stuck.

  • Alice Bowie||

    You are correct.

    In a Stand Your Ground State, there is no case if there is no witnesses, no video, and the police buy the shooter's story. In fact, the shooter is immune from arrest and prosecution.

    I feel sorry for the Martin family though. They are going to be real real angry once the State Attorney comes back with NO Charges. The FEDs don't have a case either. It seems that unless the shooter says "nigger" or "coon" or some other racial slur, the FEDs have no jurisdiction.

    So, other than Zimmerman being marked as public enemy #1 in America among black people, he is SCOTT FREE.

    He'll probably need a name change.

  • ant1sthenes||

    "In a Stand Your Ground State, there is no case if there is no witnesses, no video, and the police buy the shooter's story."

    Alice, the shooter's story in this case suggested he was unable to escape. If the police buy his story, the "duty to retreat" is not applicable, which makes that aspect of SYG a non-issue. The only way it might matter is probable cause, and if they don't even have PC, they are probably not going to win a trial.

    And it's not like the shooter's story was uncorroborated. He had injuries (unless you think the police and paramedics were lying), there were witnesses.

    "It seems that unless the shooter says "nigger" or "coon" or some other racial slur, the FEDs have no jurisdiction."

    You say that like it's a bad thing. If the state was in the wrong (violating equal protection by letting a hispanic white slide on murdering a black, for example), then the feds can be involved. If not, then I can't see any good reason they should be involved. There's nothing special about this case aside from the media interest.

  • Alice Bowie||

    We seem to agree.

  • plu1959||

    "in high-profile cases, the constitutional principle of the presumption of innocence can be especially strong."

    That's just out-and-out dumb.

  • Alice Bowie||

    If I was the DA, I would have passed the BUCK and gone the Grand Jury Way even though the right thing to do is to NOT bring any charges.

    However, the way this went down with the police and the media, there is no way that anyone will NOT let the black community down. The black community is going to be very upset and probably won't accept the simple facts that according to Florida law, Zimmerman is innocent.

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