The Connection Between Trayvon Martin's Death and 'Stand Your Ground' Remains Mysterious


Senate Judiciary Committee

Today Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin's mother, told a Senate subcommittee that "stand your ground" self-defense laws need to be revised, once again citing her son's death at the hands of George Zimmerman and Zimmerman's acquittal as evidence of the danger posed by eliminating the duty to retreat for people attacked in public places. Her testimony, prepared with help from the family's lawyers, is her strongest, most detailed effort yet to make this connection, but it still falls short:

The law should be changed to include language that clarifies its original intent, as articulated by Florida's former Governor Jeb Bush, who signed "Stand Your Ground" into law. Regarding our son's killing, Governor Bush said "'Stand Your Ground' means stand your ground. It doesn't mean chase after somebody who's turned their back."

Zimmerman's defense was not based on the right to stand your ground, since he claimed Martin knocked him down and pinned him, making escape impossible. Even if Zimmerman had attempted a "stand your ground" defense, it would not have covered chasing after someone who was running away, since it requires a reasonable fear of death or serious injury. But Fulton argues that the defense Zimmerman actually used or could have used does not really matter:

Many people have mistakenly assumed that because my son's killer did not apply for "Stand Your Ground" immunity during the trial, that this law was not a factor in his death. The truth is that the "Stand Your Ground" law in its entirety creates many opportunities for people to commit terrible acts of violence and evade justice. By being unclear in when and how it is applied, "Stand Your Ground" in its current form is far too open to abuse. Although we may never know for sure what was going through the head of our son's killer, we do know that our son's killer studied "Stand Your Ground" closely. That knowledge may have emboldened him to stalk my son and use lethal force even in a situation where it seemed unnecessary and certainly avoidable.

It seems unlikely that Zimmerman was thinking about the details of Florida's self-defense law when he got out of his car. If he thought far enough ahead to imagine a violent encounter, he probably would have stayed put and waited for police, in which case Martin would still be alive. But as the prosecution conceded during Zimmerman's trial, nothing he did until the fight with Martin began was illegal, even if we assume that Zimmerman continued to follow Martin after the police dispatcher suggested he stop. That would still be true if Florida had not abolished the duty to retreat. That duty applies to the use of force by someone who has been attacked. It does not apply to nonviolent actions by a neighborhood watch volunteer who is trying to keep an eye on someone he deems suspicious. 

Fulton complains that the Sanford Police Department did not immediately arrest Zimmerman, which she also blames on Florida's law. Here is the relevant provision:

A law enforcement agency may use standard procedures for investigating the use of force…but the agency may not arrest the person for using force unless it determines that there is probable cause that the force that was used was unlawful. 

In other words, it was not enough to know that Zimmerman had killed Martin, which he never denied. The police also needed reason to doubt Zimmerman's claim of self-defense. That probable cause requirement seems fair to me, although it may indeed have delayed Zimmerman's arrest.

By contrast, Fulton's complaint that we never heard her son's side of the story has nothing to do with any special provision of Florida's law:

How can we allow someone to escape liability for killing a total stranger he stalked, chased, and confronted, based solely on the killer's word? This seems like a classic example of circular logic. It is not logical to allow a person to commit a homicide and then turn around and allow them to speak for the deceased party whom they just killed. "Stand Your Ground" thus rewards killers for silencing their victims and claiming the deceased party was the aggressor in the matter.

Fulton surely is right that such one-sidedness makes it more difficult to get at the truth. But that is a problem in any case where someone claims to have killed in self-defense and there are no other witnesses to crucial parts of the encounter (although the witness who had the best view of Zimmerman's fight with Martin lent support to the defendant's account).

Even if "stand your ground" did not play any role in Zimmerman's defense, Fulton says, it may have played a role in his acquittal:

"Stand Your Ground" was also a factor in the way in which the jury in our son's case applied the law. First, the language of the law is not clear. We don't know for certain what happened during the jury deliberations, but we do know that the two jurors who have spoken publicly about the case both said that they were confused. In Trayvon's case, Juror B37 specifically mentioned "Stand Your Ground" multiple times in explaining her decision to set Trayvon's killer free. The laws relating to self-defense, which determine the guilt or innocence of killers, should be clear and easily understood by those tasked with applying them.

The "stand your ground" language that the jurors heard is part of the standard jury instruction in cases where the defendant claims his use of deadly force was justified. The defense asked for it to be included (why not?), and the judge agreed, but that does not mean it figured in the verdict. While Juror B37 did utter the phrase "stand your ground" a couple of times in the interview to which Fulton refers, she also made it clear that she believed the essential elements of Zimmerman's story: that Martin was the aggressor; that Zimmerman was pinned to the ground, unable to escape, when he fired his gun; and that Martin was assaulting Zimmerman in a way that made him reasonably fear for his life. That scenario has nothing to do with the right to stand your ground, and Zimmerman could have used exactly the same defense in any state, whether or not it imposes a duty to retreat.

Perhaps the jurors were "confused," as Fulton suggests, misunderstanding what "stand your ground" means. If so, they were not alone.

Fulton repeatedly conflates Zimmerman's decision to follow her son with violence:

The instructions to the jury included all the protections provided by "Stand Your Ground" without mentioning the primary traditional limitation. For centuries, first aggressors have been denied the right to claim self-defense when they lose fights they start. Our attorneys have explained to me that the "first aggressor" doctrine is a part of the common law tradition predating America, but to me it is just common sense. Allowing my son's killer to claim the protections of self-defense without constraining him with its accepted limitations violates Trayvon's rights by providing him with an unequal level of protection under the law. Everyone should be able to feel safe walking in public without fear that someone might randomly stalk, confront and kill them and get away with it because they are not around to tell the court what happened. Knowing that someone targeted and killed a person who was not bothering them or anyone else should be evidence enough.

If the fight occurred the way Zimmerman claimed, Martin was the "first aggressor" because he threw the first punch, which was not legally justified no matter how annoying or alarming Zimmerman's behavior was. Judging from Juror B37's comments, the jurors believed Martin was the one who started the fight. If they had been persuaded that Zimmerman was the aggressor, that he "targeted and killed a person who was not bothering [him]," they would not have acquitted him.

In the end, Fulton is determined to use her son's death as an argument against "stand your ground" laws, no matter how implausible that argument seems once you delve into the details of the law and the case: 

I am a mother, not a lawyer or a legislator. I don't pretend to know all the details of the law, policy or politics surrounding "Stand Your Ground." What I do know, and what I am reminded of every day, is that my son was murdered. He was walking home with a snack and minding his own business when a stranger stalked him, chased him after he ran, confronted him and finally killed him. I believe in my heart that "Stand Your Ground" shares responsibility for what has happened to my family. 

Fulton's desire to give her son's death meaning by linking it to a cause is perfectly understandable. But grief is not an argument. It is possible that Zimmerman's shooting of Martin was not justified, although the prosecution did not come close to proving that beyond a reasonable doubt. Furthermore, it is possible that some of the changes that Florida's legislators made to the state's self-defense law in 2005 were misguided. It is just hard to see any logical connection between these two propositions.