If you believe Trayvon was attacked in public, your crusade against SYG is especially misguided

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Published on July 17, 2013

trayvonThe George Zimmerman trial got a lot more coverage than I think was ever justified, and I’d just as soon not add to that. But now The New York Times editorial board and several others are trying to turn this case into a policy question, so I think that’s worth engaging.

They want to blame the Stand Your Ground law for the result — the law on the books of 24 states that eliminates any “duty to retreat” for any person who is attacked in a place where they have a right to be. (In fact, I’m told there are more states than that where the principle applies, even though there is no formal Stand Your Ground law for criminal cases.) 

George Zimmerman did not even attempt to put on a “Stand Your Ground” defense, which should really settle the issue. One possible reason is that it would have been incompatible with his version of events. By his account — whether you buy it or not — Zimmerman had no opportunity to flee once he feared for his life, because he was pinned to the ground. No “duty to retreat” would apply in such a situation. Rather, prosecutors had to prove that George Zimmerman was not really defending himself when he shot Trayvon Martin, or that he used disproportionate force. It was a difficult to case to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

But for a case where Stand Your Ground might have applied, let’s perform a mental exercise that changes the situation. Similar trial, mostly the same evidence, and let’s assume from the start that the version of events Zimmerman gave at his real-life trial is false. But then add this twist: pretend the struggle between the two men ended differently — Zimmerman was killed.

In our alternate universe, Martin is questioned by the cops that night. He tells them the truth: Zimmerman chased him through the apartment complex where he was staying. Martin, who had noticed this creepy fellow following earlier, heard the footsteps and turned around. Zimmerman reached for his gun.

Martin, fearing for his life, then made a split-second judgement. He wasn’t 100% sure Zimmerman was going to shoot him, but he didn’t want to find out. He could have attempt to flee, but that carried risks as well. So he lunged for the gun, the two ended up on the ground, with one hand each struggling for it. Unable to get the gun out of Zimmerman’s hand, Martin says he punched Zimmerman in the nose. He says he then put his free hand on Zimmerman’s forehead and bashed it into the concrete, hoping he’d let go of the gun. He didn’t, so Martin kept it up, fearing he was a dead man if he let go. Zimmerman suddenly went limp.  

In our thought experiment, Martin’s story to the police is 100% true. But let’s say the prosecutors don’t see it that way. They point to Zimmerman’s earlier call to the police to show that Zimmerman could not have been out to kill him. They claim Martin ambushed him. And they keep pointing out that if Martin actually felt threatened, he could have just fled the scene — and that, in fact, he had a legal duty to do so if he could, to retreat from the danger rather than stand his ground. 

But what if the prosecutor isn’t allowed to make that argument? What if Martin’s split-second decision to meet force with force is protected by law from Monday morning quarterbacking by jurors — jurors who weren’t there when it happened and who may well have bigoted attitudes toward young black men wearing hoodies? What if, in order to prosecute Martin successfully, the state couldn’t use his failure to flee against him, and was instead forced to prove by other arguments, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Martin never feared for his life? That’s a harder case to prove, and it makes it far more likely that Martin, who we know never sought the confrontation, could get on with his life without worrying about a trumped-up murder charge.

And that’s what a Stand Your Ground law does. It protects innocent people who are attacked in public places from being second-guessed later if they believe the circumstances justify responding to force with force. It may end up protecting some guilty people too, but our system would rather err in that direction, anyway — it would rather let ten guilty men go than imprison one innocent.

Unlike the real-life Zimmerman trial over Martin’s death, a Martin trial over the death of George Zimmerman might have been a case where Stand Your Ground really applied and protected an innocent person. So before you scapegoat a law that wasn’t invoked by the defense for a verdict you believe was wrong, think about what it means for innocent people (perhaps including Trayvon) who are attacked in public places.