In light of the news yesterday about new evidence from Trayvon Martin's girlfriend, one might think 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman is done for. He isn't.
Yesterday's story revealed that the 17-year-old Martin was on the phone with his girlfriend when Zimmerman killed him with a single bullet to the chest last month. She told ABC, "Trayvon said, 'What, are you following me for?' and the man said, 'What are you doing here?' Next thing I hear is somebody pushing, and somebody pushed Trayvon because the headset just fell. I called him again and he didn't answer the phone."
The boy had no weapons, no criminal history, and, according to witnesses, cried out for help before Zimmerman gunned him down. Recently released 911 tapes reveal Zimmerman complaining to authorities that "these assholes, they always get away" shortly before Zimmerman pulled out a handgun and killed Martin, who was found to be carrying Skittles and a can of iced tea.
And, under Florida's new "stand your ground" law, Zimmerman could totally get away with it.
Under normal circumstances, homicide cases examine the killer's "duty to retreat" -- if he could have gotten away rather than use deadly force. Many states have "castle doctrine" laws that state you have no duty to retreat in your home or car -- laws that say if someone breaks into your home, it's safe to assume you're in danger for your life and can respond with deadly force.
Florida, however, is one of 17 states to completely eliminate the duty to retreat -- deadly response can be used anywhere. Zimmerman could have retreated -- hell, he could have done anything other than what he did and this wouldn't have happened.
Gov. Rick Scott said yesterday that "I'm going to look at it, because if what's happening is it's being abused, that's not right." The Sun-Sentinel also reports that former state Sen. Durell Peaden, the "stand your ground" bill's sponsor, said "the intent was to protect women and children... They're using it to protect someone who ought to be in jail. The state attorney ought to do his job."
Peaden ought to have done his job too, because his bill to "protect women and children" ended up giving carte blanche to Floridians to kill people whenever they decided it was necessary. It has resulted in hundreds of unprosecuted homicides in less than seven years.
Since the law was enacted in 2005, "justifiable homicides" in Florida have spiked dramatically, according to a Tampa Bay Times story from 2010. While the state averaged around 36 such cases between 2000 and 2005, there have been hundreds since, including 105 in 2009 alone. Court cases around the state have laid precedent for weak self-defense arguments to work as grounds for acquittal.
The FBI and Department of Justice announced Monday night that they would be joining the investigation into the killing; a statement from the DOJ on Tuesday said that "the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person acted intentionally and with the specific intent to do something which the law forbids. Negligence, recklessness, mistakes and accidents are not prosecutable under the federal criminal civil rights laws."
These sentiments are echoed in many of Florida's self-defense cases: Zimmerman doesn't have to prove he was acting in self-defense; prosecutors have to prove that he wasn't, even if the big, bad FBI is involved. Here are three Florida acquittals that suggest Florida law isn't on Martin's side.
1. Timothy McTigue murder acquittal
Forty-three-year-old Boynton Beach man Timothy McTigue got in a fight with Michael Palmer, a drunken 23-year-old, at Phil Foster Park in spring 2007. The fight eventually took the men briefly into water next to a floating dock. McTigue got out of the water and, as Palmer pulled himself up on the dock, McTigue pulled a gun and shot Palmer in the side of the head.
There was no warning, no showing Palmer the gun. He was just dead. It's possible McTigue could have escaped, but that question didn't matter -- he had no duty to. Last May, McTigue was acquitted of second-degree murder.
2. Mark Fields conviction reversal
Juries -- and those instructing them -- seem to have a hard time getting Florida's self-defense laws straight. The Fields case is only one of many in which verdicts were overturned because jury instructions were flawed.
What both sides agreed on was that Fields went to Jesse Black's Saloon in Leesburg with a friend named Alvin Conrad, and a shotgun got involved, as did a six-foot-six bouncer named "Big Ben." Fields said Big Ben knocked his friend off a barstool, then knocked out Fields; when Fields regained consciousness, he saw a crowd of people beating his friend and ran to get a shotgun to defend him.
In the story from prosecutors, Big Ben told Fields to apologize for insulting several women. Conrad responded by punching the 300-pound bouncer. Both Conrad and Fields were booted, but prosecutors said they came back wielding a shotgun asking, "Where's the big guy?" Fields tried to break open the cash register but broke his shotgun instead, at which time bar patrons and employees reportedly attacked Fields and Conrad, holding them until authorities carted them off.
Anyway, Fields claimed self-defense, and the jury instructions inappropriately used the phrase "beyond a reasonable doubt," even though there can be plenty of doubt. The relevant passage from the reversal:
...law does not require defendant to prove self-defense to any standard measuring assurance of truth, exigency, near certainty, or even mere probability; defendant's only burden is to offer facts from which his resort to force could have been reasonable...
The State has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense.
3.The Steak n' Shake Stabbing
Michael Montijo was convicted of manslaughter with a deadly weapon after stabbing a man in an Orlando Steak n' Shake parking lot in 2008. Montijo, talking on his cell phone, reportedly cut off a car with four people in it, including Hunter Rosier. The car followed Montijo to the Steak n' Shake, where, according to court documents, "its occupants, highly agitated, cursed and screamed at Montijo... Montijo retreated into the Steak n' Shake and the staff locked the door behind him."
What happens next isn't clear, the report says, "because many of the witnesses had been drinking." But somehow, Montijo got a knife, ended up outside the Steak n' Shake -- even though police were on their way -- and stabbed Rosier to death.
The conviction was reversed, again after improper jury instructions, but language in the decision reinforces the statements from the Fields ruling:
When a defendant claims self-defense, the State maintains the burden of proving the defendant committed the crime and did not act in self-defense. The burden never shifts to the defendant to prove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. Rather, he must simply present enough evidence to support giving the instruction.
There is already more scrutiny over the Martin cases than there was over these. While these cases involve more straightforward altercations than the tragedy in Sanford, one thing is clear: Floridians -- Zimmerman included -- have a lot more leeway to use deadly force, without any repercussions at all.
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