‘Stand Your Ground’ requires firm footing
On the evening of Saturday, July 13, my Facebook and Twitter feeds blew up with reactions to George Zimmerman’s “not guilty” verdict. I was in the Bay Area for a weekend vacation, and the local news sources erupted with reports of peaceful protest in San Francisco proper but also of violence and destruction in Oakland. Interviews with both disheartened and contented citizens flooded in from around the country.
On one side of the fence, many claimed that Zimmerman literally got away with murder, while others stuck to the rhetoric of racism. On the flip side, others still stood by the decision of the jury that Zimmerman acted in self-defense and should not be charged with second-degree murder or manslaughter. While everyone has their own opinion, the fact remains that an unarmed teenager was killed, and his shooter was acquitted on the basis of self-defense.
The “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida is what caused police officers to not initially arrest Zimmerman after the incident, although the defense did not rest on the law throughout the case. What really gave the defense its teeth was the compounding evidence of violence between Zimmerman and Treyvon Martin. The “Stand Your Ground” law allows citizens to use deadly force in self-defense without the obligation to attempt to retreat.
Nevada—along with approximately 20 other states—has a similar law that can be used to protect oneself in self-defense cases. In an article written last year by John Cahill, the Clark County public administrator and a former police officer, he clarified the circumstances in which “Stand Your Ground” applies. He wrote, “To merit the use of deadly force in self-defense, the attack must be unprovoked and the person suffering attack must be innocent and act on reasonable fears alone as presented in that instant. The danger of death or great bodily harm must be imminent and the use of deadly force in response must be absolutely necessary.”
For some, the law reeks of justification for vigilantism. But the Zimmerman case has become an example of how thorough the justification for violence must be. Through the defense’s detailed account of the incident, it would seem that Zimmerman acted within his full legal rights. The evidence showed the injuries sustained by both Martin and Zimmerman before the lethal shot, and it appeared that Martin had been attacking Zimmerman in a way that made him fear for his life, especially when he testified that Martin seemed like he was about the reach for Zimmerman’s gun. The main issue, however, besides Martin’s age, and the thing that made the case spread like wildfire, was the public opinion that Zimmerman, in his position as a member of the neighborhood watch, had used racial profiling to track Martin in the first place.
The now-famous symbol of the hoodie to represent prejudice has been used widely to encourage a groundswell of public opinion about racism in the criminal system, although race was not allowed as a factor of intention in the court. Perceptions of white-on-black violence—even though Zimmerman himself was of mixed white-Hispanic descent—is perhaps one of the biggest reasons the story garnered so much national interest. But what really made the incident frustrating for so many people was how blurred the lines of the justification for “Stand Your Ground” became throughout the case. Was Zimmerman’s life really threatened? Could Martin’s death have been avoided? Well, clearly we already know what the jury thought.
When it comes to Nevada and the other states that have a “Stand Your Ground” law, the Zimmerman trial stands as a testament to the weight of responsibility borne by those acting in self-defense. While the law can offer great protection to those whose lives are threatened, the defendant must also be ready to prove that they acted in the right.