The nation, including President Barack Obama, has been discussing the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin, a young black teen that was gunned down by self-appointed, armed community watchman George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida, on February 26, 2012. Mr. Zimmerman made a frivolous call to the police describing Trayvon's behavior as "suspicious," disregarding the dispatcher's advice not to follow him, and at one point mumbling what could be a racial epithet under his breath. In the end Trayvon, an unarmed teenager carrying a bag of Skittles and Arizona brand ice tea, was confronted by Zimmerman and then found dead from a gunshot wound to the chest.
In the aftermath of the shooting people have attempted to explain why Zimmerman was not arrested. Some have cast blame on the Stand Your Ground legislation, which gives people the right to use force, including deadly force during a life-threatening confrontation -- even if they have the ability to retreat. They have pointed to reports indicating that the police did not arrest Zimmerman because he invoked the self-defense-stand-your-ground defense.
Why do most people seem to be framing this issue around whether Zimmerman had a right to defend himself under Florida's Stand Your Ground law? Given the fact that Zimmerman confronted Trayvon the discussion should really be about Trayvon's right to stand his ground during Mr. Zimmerman's unprovoked attack against him. Trayvon was the one being pursued. Trayvon was the one who presumably feared for his life when confronted by Zimmerman who had admitted in the 911 call that he was following the teen. It was Trayvon who had a right to stand his ground and defend himself. Why has the discussion of the right to defend oneself focused on this issue from the perspective of Mr. Zimmerman instead of the innocent teen?
In pertinent part the Florida Stand Your Ground law states that:
A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
When Trayvon's girlfriend told him to run away from the person following him, Trayvon had every right to stand firm and defend himself against Zimmerman. It isn't clear exactly what happened next although one eyewitness reported that Trayvon at one point fought against his attacker. Zimmerman's lawyer, Craig Sonner, claims that medical reports indicate that Zimmerman wound up with a bloody nose and various cuts from Trayvon.
If Trayvon did fight back, he probably had every right to under Stand Your Ground legislation. Trayvon was not engaged in any unlawful activity and was presumably, based on the 911 tapes, initially confronted by Zimmerman. It would have certainly been reasonable for Trayvon to fear Zimmerman, who was chasing him down in the dark and clearly not a police officer. Trayvon had a right to fight back and defend himself against a reasonable belief that he was being attacked. The question is: did Trayvon have a duty to run away and avoid a confrontation? The Stand Your Ground law gave Trayvon the right to stand firm and not run away from his attacker. The ensuing struggle ended with the tragic death of Trayvon but it is Trayvon's family that should be invoking the right to Stand Your Ground to counteract the claims that Zimmerman was defending himself. If Trayvon had knocked our Zimmerman seriously injuring or killing him, would he be justified? He probably would under Stand Your Ground legislation, which gave him the right to not back down from his attacker. It also possibly gave Trayvon the right to break Zimmerman's nose moments before the shooting.
On thing, however, is certain. Irrespective of the "no duty to retreat" right in Florida, one is never permitted to use deadly force if they don't have a reasonable belief that they are facing impending death or serious bodily harm. It's hard to fathom how Mr. Zimmerman could have felt his life was threatened by a boy 100 pounds lighter than him touting a bag of Skittles and a Arizona ice tea. Furthermore, the defense is not available when someone "initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself" -- which seems to be precisely what Zimmerman did if he initiated the confrontation.
If there is ambiguity in Stand Your Ground legislation, those ambiguities should certainly be addressed so the law clearly and narrowly applies to very specific cases that of course exclude situations where one initially provokes a confrontation. What seems categorically clear is that the right to stand your ground was Trayvon's right in this particular situation. Let's not take away that right from the victim in this case.
The author graduated law school from City University of New York School of Law where he served as executive editor of the law review and interned for civil rights lawyer Ron Kuby. He currently serves as vice president to, 1SaleADay.com, the largest independently owned deal a day website.