When Florida Circuit Court Judge Debra Nelson issued the jury instructions in the second-degree murder trial of George Zimmerman, those instructions declared...
"If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony."
Though Zimmerman's lawyers chose to mount a traditional self-defense argument on their client's behalf -- eschewing a defense specifically based on the controversial Florida law that permits individuals who feel threatened to use deadly force even when they could retreat to safety -- the role played in the case by the "stand your ground" law, and the theory that underpins it, has come into stark relief in the days since Zimmerman was acquitted.
The judge's instructions, and a juror's referencing of "stand your ground" in her discussion of the deliberations, serve to highlight long-term concerns about laws that permit the use of deadly force even when violence might be averted.
Civil rights groups have objected to "stand your ground" laws in Florida and dozens of other states in their responses to the Zimmerman verdict. So, too, have prominent figures such as musician Stevie Wonder, who announced Sunday that he would boycott "stand your ground" states. And on Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder told the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People convention in Orlando that states must reconsider laws that contribute to "more violence than they prevent."
Florida's "stand your ground" law has from the beginning been a part of the controversy over the February 26, 2012, killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was not charged for 44 days following the shooting of the youth. Only after national protests led Florida Governor Rick Scott to appoint a special prosecutor was Zimmerman charged with second-degree murder.
Now, despite attempts by casual commentators to suggest that "stand your ground" was not a factor in this case, serious observers are coming to recognize the significance of this week's observation by The Miami Herald that "Zimmerman waived his right to the Stand Your Ground immunity hearing, a pre-trial event that's not spelled out in statute. But he was afforded the protections of Stand Your Ground, which is embedded in Florida's self-defense laws. Its language, found in statute 766.012, was tailored to the Zimmerman trial's jury instructions."
At least one juror says that "stand your ground" considerations figured in the deliberations by a jury that was reportedly divided over whether to convict Zimmerman.
Responding to a question about how the jurors reached their "not guilty" verdict -- despite concerns regarding Zimmerman's actions prior to the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin -- the juror justified her decision by telling CNN's Anderson Cooper, "Well, because of the heat of the moment and the Stand Your Ground. He had a right to defend himself. If he felt threatened that his life was going to be taken away from him or he was going to have bodily harm, he had a right."
More than a year ago, initial protests over the killing of Trayvon Martin brought national attention to Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, which was enacted in 2005 -- and to similar laws that the Center for Media and Democracy explains have been enacted in 26 states over the past decade, with prodding from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the National Rifle Association.
Amid the controversy over the Florida shooting, ALEC announced in April, 2012 that it would no longer advocate for "stand your ground" laws as part of a broader refocusing on economic issues. But the laws remain on the books. "Florida's dangerous 'shoot first' law allowed Trayvon's killer to walk free without charges for more than a month. 'Shoot First' legalizes vigilante homicide, has demonstrated racial bias in its application, and has led to an increase in gun-related deaths in the more than two dozen states where it has been passed into law," argued Color of Change, as part of its campaign to strike down "stand your ground" laws in states across the country. "These laws give individual gun owners a greater right to shoot and kill than the rules of engagement for our military during times of war grant to soldiers in war zones. 'Shoot First' must be repealed now to protect families and communities and prevent senseless deaths."
With the acquittal of Zimmerman, the Florida law has come back into focus, as have the laws in states across the country.
In his response to the Zimmerman verdict, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People President Benjamin Todd Jealous said...
"We stand with Trayvon's family and we are called to act. We will pursue civil rights charges with the Department of Justice, we will continue to fight for the removal of Stand Your Ground laws in every state, and we will not rest until racial profiling in all its forms is outlawed."
"Sadly, all the facts in this tragic case will probably never be known. But one fact has long been crystal clear: 'shoot-first' laws like those in Florida can inspire dangerous vigilantism and protect those who act recklessly with guns. Such laws -- drafted by gun lobby extremists in Washington -- encourage deadly confrontations by enabling people to shoot first and argue 'justifiable homicide' later."
Attorney General Holder picked up on that theme in his remarks to the NAACP Tuesday, saying...
"Separate and apart from the case that has drawn the nation's attention, it's time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods. These laws try to fix something that was never broken. There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if -- and the 'if' is important -- if no safe retreat is available.
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