Was George Zimmerman the Aggressor?


Yesterday I noted that George Zimmerman, the Florida neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, on February 26, needlessly created the situation in which he claims to have feared for his life. By following Martin for no good reason, against the advice of the police dispatcher, he set up the fight that ended with Martin dead. Now the co-authors of Florida's "stand your ground" self-defense statute, which critics blame for the failure to arrest Zimmerman, are saying (as Lucy Steigerwald noted yesterday evening) that Zimmerman's decision to pursue and confront Martin makes him ineligible for the law's protection. Durell Peaden, who sponsored the 2005 law as a Republican state senator, told The Miami Herald Zimmerman should be charged:

They got the goods on him. They need to prosecute whoever shot the kid. He has no protection under my law.

Dennis Baxley, the chief House sponsor of the law, concurs:

Peaden and Baxley, R-Ocala, say their law is a self-defense act. It says law-abiding people have no duty to retreat from an attacker and can meet "force with force." Nowhere does it say that a person has a right to confront another.

The 911 tapes strongly suggest Zimmerman overstepped his bounds, they say, when the Sanford neighborhood crime-watch captain said he was following Trayvon and appeared to ignore a police request to stay away.

"The guy lost his defense right then," said Peaden. "When he said 'I'm following him,' he lost his defense."…

[Baxley] stressed over and over again that "there's nothing in this statute that authorizes people to pursue and confront people."

Critics of the law say Peaden and Baxley are reading limits into it that are not actually there. The law says "a person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place [aside from a home] where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony." UCLA law professor Adam Winkler argues that the reference to preventing a forcible felony "unambiguously authorizes people to pursue and confront others." It is hard to see how, since every scenario described by the law involves being "attacked" and "meet[ing] force with force"—i.e., the law assumes the other person is the aggressor. Once you are attacked, you may use force to, among other things, prevent a forcible felony (a rape or mugging, say).

In any event, Zimmerman had no evidence that Martin was about to commit a forcible felony, which is why his decision to treat him like a criminal was so outrageous. Rather, Zimmerman's defense hinges on his claim that he reasonably believed deadly force was necessary to "prevent death or great bodily harm to himself." Julian Sanchez, drawing on his own experience with an attempted mugging involving three teenagers about Martin's age (17), argues that Zimmerman's claim is implausible, especially since he outweighed Martin by 100 pounds. But even if Zimmerman really did fear for his life, reasonably or not, the "stand your ground" law applies only if Martin was the aggressor: Zimmerman was within his rights to "meet force with force" only if he was "attacked." Peaden and Baxley are suggesting, in essence, that Zimmerman became the aggressor by chasing after Martin with no justification.

These two points—whether Zimmerman was "attacked" and whether he reasonably feared for his life—need to be resolved before deciding whether he is guilty of criminal homicide. But the circumstances of Martin's death make the initial decision not to charge Zimmerman puzzling, to say the least. Last week Sanford, Florida, Police Chief Bill Lee said "we don't have anything to dispute his claim of self-defense at this point." He added that he would welcome a federal investigation. But if Zimmerman's self-defense claim was fishy enough to justify a Justice Department investigation (which is now happening, along with an inquiry by a Seminole County grand jury), why wait for the feds to step in? 

Responding to yesterday's post, Sean Bugg criticizes me for "trying to downgrade what happened the night George Zimmerman shot 17-year-old Martin dead." As evidence, he cites my statement that "Martin would still be alive if Zimmerman had not been so eager to play cops and robbers." I'm not sure in what way that lets Zimmerman off the hook. Bugg also cites my distinction between shooting someone "in cold blood," which is what a lawyer for Martin's family said happened, and shooting someone "in the heat of the moment." Bugg adds: "In the heat of a moment created entirely by Zimmerman," which is the point I was trying to make when I said Zimmerman created the circumstances that led to the shooting. 

More generally, Bugg says I try to "remake the killing of Trayvon Martin into a lesson on the importance of self-defense with guns." Actually, I was responding to people who are trying to remake the killing of Trayvon Martin into a lesson on the folly of "stand your ground" laws (as well as nondiscretionary carry permit policies). My point was that a bogus self-defense claim does not mean justice was better served when Floridians who injured or killed assailants had to prove there was no opportunity to escape.

Addendum: As Slim points out in the comments, a FAQ (PDF) posted yesterday by the Sanford Police Department says "Zimmerman's statement was that he had lost sight of Trayvon and was returning to his truck to meet the police officer when he says he was attacked by Trayvon." That seems inconsistent with the account Martin's girlfriend gave of the cellphone conversation she had with him right before the shooting. She said she heard Martin say, "Why are you following me?" She said she then heard someone else saying, "What are you doing here?" 

Addendum II: Julian Sanchez imagines a scenario, consistent with the publicly known facts, in which Zimmerman and Martin were both tragically mistaken.