Republican state lawmakers in Florida responsible for a controversial 2005 self-defense law said it shouldn't apply to a neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, in February.
Police in Sanford, Fla., declined to charge George Zimmerman, 28, saying they lack evidence refuting his claim of self-defense in the fatal confrontation. Under the 2005 law, called Stand Your Ground, Florida residents can use lethal force against an attacker if they believe their life is threatened, regardless of the location.
In recorded calls to police, Zimmerman describes following Martin in his car and calls him 'suspicious.' A dispatcher tells him not to pursue Martin, but Zimmerman persists. In statements to police, Zimmerman claimed that Martin then attacked him and he shot the teenager in self-defense, police said.
Martin weighed nearly 100 pounds less than Zimmerman and was found carrying only a bag of Skittles candy and a can of iced tea. Police said that without evidence proving that Zimmerman attacked Martin first, they had no grounds to charge him with a crime.
Dennis Baxley, a Republican state representative and co-author of the 2005 self-defense law, said Zimmerman negated his ability to claim immunity under the law by chasing Martin.
"This law is for innocent, law-abiding citizens who are under attack by a perpetrator," Baxley told The Huffington Post. "Anyone who is out pursuing and confronting people is not protected by this statute."
"I think they need to go back and read the statute," Baxley said, referring to the Sanford Police Department.
Former Republican State Sen. Durell Peadon, another co-author of the law, said Zimmerman "has no protection under my law."
"They need to prosecute whoever shot the kid," Peadon told the Miami Herald on Tuesday.
Gun rights advocates also question the decision not to charge Zimmerman.
"I don't see why he hasn't been arrested," said Sean Caranna, executive director of Florida Carry, a gun rights group.
Zimmerman had no right to follow and confront Martin in the first place, Caranna noted.
"Being the neighborhood watch guy doesn't give you carte blanche to stop and question every guy you see walking down the street," Caranna said.
A spokesman for the Sanford Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Critics of the 2005 self-defense law said its broad wording led to a perception among Florida residents and law enforcement that the use of deadly force is justified in almost any circumstance in which a person perceives themselves to be in danger. The self-defense doctrine has also been invoked as a defense by hundreds of people involved in fights and shootings, complicating formerly straightforward criminal cases, legal experts said.
"On a practical level, it seems that prosecutors in Florida are much less inclined to pursue homicide charges in cases when someone claims self-defense,' said Scott Sundby, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law.
The Martin shooting is now in the hands of Seminole County prosecutor Norman Wolfinger, who said this week that he will bring the case before a grand jury in April. The U.S. Justice Department and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement are also involved in the case.
In a statement, Wolfinger pledged a "thorough, deliberate and just" review of the facts. "We appreciate our community's care and concern in this case," he said. "It is our community too."
Weeks passed before Wolfinger took any action, however, leading some to question whether the matter would have ever reached a grand jury were it not for the public outrage that erupted after Martin's parents called for justice.
"If it were not for the public outcry I think it's very clear that the prosecution would not have gone forward," Sundby said.
A spokeswoman for Wolfinger could not be reached for comment.
Sundby agreed with Republican lawmakers that Zimmerman's apparent pursuit of Martin exceeded even the broad bounds of the self-defense law, which loosened the standards by which citizens can use deadly force to repel an attack or stop a violent crime in progress.
"You cannot provoke the confrontation. You cannot be the instigator and then claim 'stand your ground,' Sundby said.
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