The Stand Your Ground law that gained notoriety in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s shooting became central to the case again last week, when written instructions advised the jury that found shooter George Zimmerman not guilty to take the law’s central provision into account.
The law that authorizes the use of unfettered deadly force with no “duty to retreat” sparked national outcry last year when police cited the statute as grounds for not arresting George Zimmerman for more than a month. Since then, reports and studies have shown that similar laws on the books in at least 21 states are discriminatory, applied arbitrarily, and associated with a higher rate of homicides. But the law faded from center stage after police pursued arrest of Zimmerman 44 days later, and Zimmerman’s lawyers opted not to specifically raise the law as a defense during trial. Had the lawyers moved to formally raise Stand Your Ground as a defense, the judge would have held a hearing devoted to whether the law immunized Zimmerman from criminal liability, and the case might have ended without ever going to a jury.
Zimmerman’s lawyer chose instead to go to trial, once again declining to specifically raise “Stand Your Ground” as a defense and keeping the law out of the trial. But the principle’s irrelevance ended the moment the jury received their instructions for deciding the case. As Ta-Nehisi Coates reveals, the written instructions that sat with the jurors as they deliberated made very clear that under Florida law, a shooter has a right to stand his ground:
If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in anyplace 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.
Since Zimmerman’s lawyers opted not to invoke Stand Your Ground as a defense, observers have characterized this case as a regular old “self-defense” case, rather than a “Stand Your Ground” case. But what these jury instructions make clear is that, in Florida, there is no longer an effective distinction. Stand Your Ground is the state’s self-defense law, whether or not a defendant opts to hold a hearing specifically on the question. In fact, this section on the “Justifiable Use of Deadly Force” is the only place in all 27 pages of jury instructions in which the phrase “self-defense” is used.
And self-defense now means shooters may stand their ground not just to prevent death or great bodily harm, but also to prevent the “commission of a forcible felony.” Those who wonder why jurors didn’t expect that a reasonable person in George Zimmerman’s situation should have taken lesser action than firing a deadly shot at a kid whose arsenal consisted of candy and a soft drink – regardless of whether or not he attacked Zimmerman — may find their answer on page 11 of the jury instructions.
Given this instruction, it is worth pointing out that George Zimmerman was studying criminal justice at an online college, including Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. After jurors watched the recording of a Fox News interview in which Zimmerman claimed to have no knowledge of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, his college professor testified that the law was covered extensively in his class, and that Zimmerman was “probably one of the better students in the class” and received an A.
Regardless of whether Zimmerman was well-versed in the statute and exploited it to his advantage, it remains the law in Florida. Its inclusion in the jury instructions as an explanation of self-defense makes all the more compelling the jury’s reasonable doubt about Zimmerman’s legal culpability, even if, as Emily Bazelon suggests, Florida is undoubtedly guilty.
The Stand Your Ground law may once again play a pivotal role in civil lawsuits against Zimmerman. As legal commentators have pointed out, the Stand Your Ground law provides the same opportunity for defendants to seek immunity from civil liability that it does from criminal, if a judge finds the defendant’s use of force was justifiable under the law’s standards. And as in this case, even if a judge doesn’t find Zimmerman immune, a jury would once again be instructed to take the Stand Your Ground rule into account.