Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Florida Law Gets Scrutiny After a Teenager’s Killing

MIAMI — Seven years after Florida adopted its sweeping self-defense law, the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, has put that law at the center of an increasingly angry debate over how he was killed and whether law enforcement has the authority to charge the man who killed him.

The law, called Stand Your Ground, is one of 21 such laws around the country, many of them passed within the last few years. In Florida, it was pushed heavily by the National Rifle Association but opposed vigorously by law enforcement.

It gives the benefit of the doubt to a person who claims self-defense, regardless of whether the killing takes place on a street, in a car or in a bar — not just in one’s home, the standard cited in more restrictive laws. In Florida, if people feel they are in imminent danger from being killed or badly injured, they do not have to retreat, even if it would seem reasonable to do so. They have the right to “stand their ground” and protect themselves.

That is precisely the question in the case: Was the gunman, George Zimmerman, 28, a white Hispanic crime watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla., in imminent danger and acting in self-defense during his encounter with Trayvon Martin, as he asserts?...

...Investigating the cases, prosecutors say, is time-consuming. “You have to be very careful and very thorough,” Mr. Eddins said.

Unless there are good witnesses and clear-cut physical evidence, the self-defense murder cases are often murky and hard to sort out, prosecutors say. The gunman’s side of the story usually prevails because the victim is not alive to challenge the claim. So rather than let a jury decide a self-defense case, which is mostly what happened under the old law, prosecutors sometimes must drop the case.

“The person who is alive always says, ‘I was in fear that he was going to hurt me,’ ” Mr. Meggs said. “And the other person would say, ‘I wasn’t going to hurt anyone.’ But he is dead. That is the problem they are wrestling with in Sanford.”
Read the rest here.

This is a tragic situation.  While generally supportive of 2nd amendment rights, I am not supportive of the so called "make my day" laws.  The Florida state legislature (also known in some circles as the Florida State Chapter of the National Rifle Association) seems to have conflated the right to legitimate self defense with the right to gun down anyone who looks cross eyed at you.  In cases of self defense, at least in situations outside of one's home or business, the burden of proof should not be on the police.  If you shoot someone dead in a quasi public environment where you had the option of walking (or in this case driving) away, you should bear the burden of justifying your actions in court. 

I am having a very hard time believing that an unarmed 17 year old kid, alone, who has never been in trouble with the law, would pick a fight with a man armed with a pistol.  Everything I have read about it makes me strongly suspect that this is a case of cold blooded murder.

Unfortunately under Florida law all you have to do is utter two magic words, "self defense," and absent strong evidence to the contrary you have a get out of jail free card.  In this case you have the dubious statements of a man known for carrying a gun and an attitude, versus the silence of a kid who can't speak for himself because he is fertilizing dandelions and whom the law has largely deprived of any champions.

The lesson here... if you visit Florida and get into any kind of altercation shoot first and be damned sure that the other guy doesn't have a chance to offer his version of events in court.

Update: MSNBC has a story on the same lines here.

1 comment:

Fr. George said...

I can see, however, how this can play out. I have watched plenty of incidents in the US where unarmed people will assault armed people. I've watched angry people so lose control that they will lean right into a policeman's barrel and take a swing at him. In an age where violent video games and the false sense of it-is-the-other-guy's-job-to-have-self-control is prevalent, it could very well be that the neighborhood watch guy got attacked by the kid. I know plenty of violent people who've never been arrested, and even mass murderers get a good defense from their families. You also have to look at context: gated community with someone wandering around aimlessly. yes, this is going to be a difficult case to prosecute. Too bad the average DA is more worried about preserving his conviction rate than going after difficult cases.