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?