Lionel Ritchie was a guest on Pierce Morgan’s show a few days ago. Morgan asked him his feelings about the Trayvon Martin case. Ritchie mistakenly and continually referred to George Zimmerman as a “security guard” and raised the possibility that Trayvon Martin wasn’t sure if he was being mugged or apprehended when he and Zimmerman made that fateful contact, however that came about. Morgan did not correct him, and this is how rumors get started. Ritchie’s categorization of Zimmerman as a security guard is just one of many pieces of misinformation surrounding this case.
With all the speculation, opinion and conjecture about the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, it’s time to get our facts straight. There are a few things that we know for sure; things that neither time, talking heads or the court of public opinion can change.
We know, for example, that Trayvon Martin, a child in the eyes of the law, is dead, the victim of a gunshot wound to the chest. We know the shooter is a self-proclaimed, self-appointed Neighborhood Watch Captain (not a security guard), he’s part-Hispanic, and his name is George Zimmerman. We know that Martin was unarmed, holding only an Arizona Ice Tea can and a bag of Skittles. We know it was chilly and rainy the night of February 26, 2012, reason enough to raise the hood on the lightweight jacket known as a hoodie worn by the victim. The Sanford Police department did not arrest Zimmerman, but they did detain and question him, after which they decided against pressing charges, saying that Zimmerman acted in self-defense.
And about that self-defense claim, there are conflicting reports on that as well. Zimmerman says he was sucker-punched in the nose by Trayvon Martin, who then knocked him to the ground and beat his head against the cement. But the funeral director who handled Martin’s body reported no bruising or lacerations consistent with a fistfight on Martin’s hands or body. Police surveillance tapes show Zimmerman being led into the police department, and there are no obvious signs of blood, cuts or broken bones on his person either. There were two eye witnesses to the scuffle, but their stories cancel each other out. One says Martin was on the bottom fighting for his life, the other says it was Zimmerman who lay on the ground.
There are several key questions that need to be answered to the satisfaction of all who are paying attention. Was Zimmerman hurt? Was Martin’s female friend “Dee Dee”, the one he was talking to when he first saw Zimmerman coming after him, telling the truth when she said she overheard an exchange between Zimmerman and Martin moments before Martin was killed? What evidence is there that Martin’s body had been involved in a fist fight? These questions, as posed by the Christian Science Monitor, if answered would go a long way towards establishing Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence.
The case has put Florida under the microscope yet again. The controversial “Stand Your Ground” law that was being discussed immediately after the news hit the Internet has been discussed by legal minds and talking heads on news shows, the Internet and in print media. Because Zimmerman is claiming self-defense, the law probably doesn’t apply in this case, but it does warrant a closer look.
Florida Statute 776.032 is the law in question, commonly known as the “Stand Your Ground” statute. It states in pertinent part:
“A person who uses force as permitted in s. 776.012 (in defense of person), s. 776.013 (home protection), s. 776.031 (in defense of others) is justified in using such force and is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such force, unless the person against whom force was used is a law enforcement officer…”
In 2010, in Dennis v. State, the Supreme Court of Florida ruled that when a person asserts a defense based on the Stand Your Ground law, the trial court must hold an evidentiary hearing to determine the facts. If the trial court determines that Stand Your Ground applies, then the case is dismissed, without a jury ever having heard the case.
In the George Zimmerman case, he is claiming self-defense, at least in the press. He could conceivably claim that he was permitted to use force pursuant to the self-defense law (Florida Statute 776.012) and should therefore be immune from criminal prosecution pursuant to Stand Your Ground. Then it becomes up to a trial judge to determine if he was justified in using deadly force against Martin. If the judge finds that he was justified, the case would be dismissed. If the judge finds that he wasn’t justified, then the case would go to a jury and he could assert a claim of self-defense and let the jury determine the facts.
Interestingly, the Stand Your Ground law also states: “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.”
This means that if the police investigating the Martin believed that Zimmerman’s use of force was probably justified (the probable cause standard), then they were actually prohibited from arresting him as a matter of law.
Of course, all of this is predicated on whether or not Zimmerman was actually acting in self-defense, a question still left unanswered. Florida’s self-defense law states, “ [A] person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if: He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.”
Zimmerman’s claim is that he was preventing “great bodily harm to himself” because he was being battered by Martin. Advocates for Zimmerman’s arrest assert that Zimmerman was the initiator of the altercation and that he can’t now claim Stand Your Ground immunity after he antagonized Martin to start the physical confrontation in the first place. The facts are clearly in dispute and will only be resolved by a jury, if and when Zimmerman is arrested and if and when a trial judge denies his Stand Your Groundmotion. If Zimmerman is arrested, it will likely be months, if not years, before the case gets resolved. In the meantime, legislators are taking a much closer look at Florida’s Stand Your Ground law and seriously considering making changes to a law that could keep the killer of an unarmed child on the street.