Before the George Zimmerman trial began, there was eager speculation about whether Zimmerman, who claimed self-defense in the killing of Trayvon Martin, would avail himself of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Supporters on both sides of the issue ranted about the appropriateness of the law. Yet, surprisingly, Zimmerman and his attorney ultimately waived his right to a pretrial immunity hearing on that basis.
Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law allows the use of deadly force as long as the defendant can prove the following factors:
- Defendant was not engaged in an unlawful activity.
- Defendant is being attacked in a place he has a right to be.
- Defendant reasonably believes his life and safety is in danger as a result of an overt act or perceived threat committed by someone else toward him.
Several states have a similar statute on their books, as well.
What was the long-standing “self-defense” law changed to “stand your ground?”
Individuals have always had the right to use deadly force in the face of an imminent threat of danger. However, the law only protected people after they had “used all reasonable means to avoid the danger.” When Florida changed its self-defense statute in 2005, the “duty to retreat” language was removed. The purpose of this change was to ensure that no one “be required to needlessly retreat in the face of intrusion or attack.” In essence, the law allows people to defend themselves without first trying to flee.
Before this change, only a person in his or her “castle” had no duty to retreat before using deadly force. According to Florida case law, a person’s “castle” was limited to his or her home and workplace. One rationale behind the “Stand Your Ground” law was to extend the definition of “castle” beyond a person’s home or workplace. Now, your “castle” is essentially anywhere you have a right to be.
What effect has the “stand your ground” law had on crime?
Many argue that this change has more to do with allowing vigilantes to evade liability, than protecting those whose lives are really in danger. In fact, this law was avidly supported by the National Rifle Association and has been labeled by some as the “kill at will” statute.
The death statistics in Florida, since the passing of the “Stand Your Ground” law are telling. According to one article, Florida averaged 12 “justifiable homicide” deaths each year between 2000 and 2004. After “Stand your Ground” was passed in 2005, the number of “justifiable” deaths has nearly tripled to an average of 35 a year. These statistics do not bode well for proponents of the law.
Was waiving the immunity hearing a good tactical move for Zimmerman?
Florida’s statute allows individuals asserting the “Stand Your Ground” defense to claim immunity from criminal prosecution and civil actions. In that situation, the judge would have sole discretion in deciding if Zimmerman is immune from prosecution. The hearing would also allow the prosecution to discover the defense’s evidence and trial theories before trial. Presumably, Zimmerman’s attorney’s strategy was to rob the prosecution of a preview, which would have undoubtedly helped in preparing the State’s case against Zimmerman. This may have been a smart move, since, Zimmerman can still raise the issue of immunity later in the trial. The trial begins its second week and is expected to last a month.