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).