The Times Keeps Shouting 'Stand Your Ground,' While Reporting That the Real Issue Was Probable Cause


A long story about the Trayvon Martin case in today's New York Times clarifies two points that have been cited by people who doubt George Zimmerman's explanation of why he shot the unarmed teenager. While many critics who say Zimmerman should have been arrested claim he was about 100 pounds heavier than Martin, the Times says he is five feet, nine inches tall and weighs 170 pounds, while Martin was six feet, one inch tall and weighed 150 pounds. These measurements by no means confirm Zimmerman's claim that Martin had the upper hand in the fight, to the point that Zimmerman feared for his life, but they do make his account more plausible. The Times also reports that police photographed Zimmerman's injuries, which were treated by paramedics at the scene of the shooting. According to Zimmerman's father, the injuries included "a broken nose, a swollen and cut lower lip, and two cuts on the back of his head." As Mike Riggs noted this morning, enhanced security camera video from the Sanford police station shows what look like two gashes on the back of Zimmerman's head. This is the same footage that Benjamin Crump, a lawyer for Martin's family, said "dramatically contradicts [Zimmerman's] version of the events of February 26" because he "has no apparent injuries in this video." 

Zimmerman's injuries seem consistent with his claim that Martin punched him in the face, knocking him to the ground, and repeatedly banged his head against the pavement. But they do not demonstrate that he met the requirements for self-defense under Florida law. If Zimmerman started the fight, for example, he would have been justified in using lethal force only if he reasonably feared death or serious injury and there was no feasible way to escape. That is in fact the essence of Zimmerman's self-defense claim, although he says Martin started the fight. Either way, if Martin was on top of Zimmerman, smacking his head on the ground, and trying to grab his gun, it did not matter that Florida's law protects the right to "stand your ground"; the analysis would be the same under the old "duty to retreat" standard. Although the Times uses the phrase "stand your ground" or variations on it half a dozen times, it's clear from the article that the decision not to charge Zimmerman, which was made by State Attorney Norm Wolfinger after Sanford police requested an arrest warrant, had to do with another aspect of the law: its requirement of probable cause for arresting an individual who claims self-defense after killing someone. Here is how the Times puts it:

Sanford police have said that once Mr. Zimmerman declared that he had shot Trayvon in the chest in self-defense, they were barred from arresting him by the state's now-famous Stand Your Ground law, the broadest protection of self-defense in the country. It immediately requires law enforcement officials to prove that a suspect did not act in self-defense, and sets the case on a slow track.

Police don't have to "prove" that Zimmerman did not act in self-defense before arresting him, but they do need probable cause—a "reasonable belief," based on facts determined by investigation—to think the homicide was unlawful. That is the same as the general standard for arresting someone or obtaining a search warrant. Wolfinger evidently did not think this burden had been met.

Assuming that judgment was correct, the problem may have been an insufficiently thorough police investigation. As the Times notes, Crump and Natalie Jackson, another lawyer for Martin's family, fault police for not being aggressive enough in questioning Zimmerman and the other witnesses and for failing to collect all the relevant evidence. For instance, "the lawyers said that, as of late last week, no investigator had interviewed Trayvon's girlfriend," who was talking to him on his cellphone right before the shooting. Another example: Zimmerman and his relatives say the cries for help captured in the background of recorded 911 calls were his, an account confirmed by at least one witness. But Martin's relatives say they recognize his voice, and (as Mike Riggs noted) two audio experts consulted by The Orlando Sentinel say the voice is not Zimmerman's. Since this is a crucial point that could have tipped the balance in favor of arresting Zimmerman (as Sanford police wanted to do), why did it take a newspaper to see if there might be an objective way of addressing it?

Addendum: In the comments, David notes a Just One Minute post that delves into the question of how reliable these voice comparisons are—both in general and in a situation where the audio quality is poor and screams are compared to ordinary conversation. I am sure that, assuming Zimmerman is eventually tried, such evidence will be debated by dueling expert witnesses, and by itself it is surely not enough to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It nevertheless could help establish probable cause for arrest, assuming the government's experts reach similar conclusions.