abe lincoln was wrong

Two or three times a week I get asked what I think about the George Zimmerman trial. I get asked because I used to be a private detective specializing in criminal defense work, and because I’ve seen a lot of criminal trials, and because I used to teach criminology, and because I write about crime and criminal stuff. So a lot of folks think I’m going to be interested in this trial.

But I’m not.

Oh, it’s a meaty trial, to be sure. There’s lots of drama in it, and if it wasn’t real it would make great theater. We have a young kid, innocently walking from a convenience store back to the condo where his father was staying. We have an over-eager wanna-be cop acting as a community watch volunteer acting on unfounded suspicion. And once they meet up, massive strata of mistrust and class resentment and racism and social angst kick in. The kid ends up dead. Shot once in the chest at extremely close range.

It’s a compelling story. But it’s just not an interesting trial. It’s not interesting for a couple of reasons. First, we basically know all the pertinent facts that are knowable. Second, none of those facts pertain to the only legal question that matters: the question of whether George Zimmerman acted in self-defense. And even that’s not very interesting since Florida law is pretty clear on the issue.

766.13 (3) – 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.

That’s the entire case, right there. Every important legal question in the case, right there. We knew the answers to those questions even before Zimmerman was arrested. Was Zimmerman engaged in unlawful activity before the shooting? No, he wasn’t (nor was Trayvon Martin; but Martin isn’t on trial). Did Zimmerman have a legal right to be where he was? Yes, he did (and so did Martin — but, again, Martin isn’t on trial). Was Zimmerman attacked? He certainly claims he was. He obviously got punched in the nose at some point, but that’s not really probative. There are no living direct witnesses to the initial act of aggression, so Zimmerman’s claim can’t be proved or disproved. Did Zimmerman have a reasonable belief that force was necessary to prevent his death or great bodily harm? Again, he claims he believed his life was in danger. How can we possibly know what Zimmerman believed at the moment he fired the weapon?

zimmerman in court

Does it matter that Zimmerman ignored the police dispatcher who told him not to follow the young man? No, not according to the law. Does it matter that Martin was doing nothing wrong? No, not according to the law. Does it matter that Zimmerman, by following and confronting Martin, almost certainly provoked the fatal incident? No, sadly, it doesn’t, not according to Florida law.

What does matter according to Florida law is whether Zimmerman ‘reasonably’ believed he was in danger when he pulled the trigger.

Here’s something that rarely gets mentioned very often. If Trayvon Martin had somehow managed to kill George Zimmerman during that event, he could be presenting the exact same defense Zimmerman’s lawyers are presenting now. The inherent flaw in Florida’s approach to self defense is that it necessarily favors the survivor. If the survivor claims he was, at the moment the fatal act was committed, in fear for his safety — and there’s nothing that blatantly contradicts that claim — then Florida law is on his side. In effect, Florida law rewards the person who acts first and with the most lethality. It’s that simple.

It’s a terrible law. It’s incredibly stupid and irresponsible law. But it is the law in Florida. That means George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed teen who was minding his own business, and it was probably legal for him to do it.

Abraham Lincoln, who was a pretty fair country lawyer in his day, once said “The best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly.” That’s great if the bad law in question is, say, a traffic law. If you’re the victim of a bad traffic law, you can contest the issue. If the bad law is a self-defense law, the only person to address the issue is the one who fired first.

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13 thoughts on “abe lincoln was wrong

  1. While I completely agree with your assessment (I’ve noted elsewhere that I expect Zimmerman will walk), I remain skeptical that Martin’s chances of being acquitted would be the same had the reverse scenario occurred.

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    • I was careful to say Martin could have used the same defense, not that he’d have the same outcome. But that would be a jury issue, not a legal issue. The little research I’ve done on Florida’s self-defense shift suggests that a LOT of claims of self-defense are accepted by prosecutors, who then simply don’t bother to charge the killer.

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  2. sean keeps making that point, if Martin has shot Zimmerman not only would he have been doing so legally under the law, he actually might have a real case to bac himself up… of course the fact that he is young and african american and in a hoodie would have unfortunately caused some problems I think.. I hope the law is changed…

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    • Yeah, I hope the law is changed too. But it’s been in place in the current form since 2006, and so long as politicians see this as a 2nd Amendment issue (and they actually do see it that way, which is pretty pathetic) I can’t foresee it changing.

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  3. I’m not sure, though, because other factors come into play besides the law, don’t they? And that’s intent. Zimmerman would at the very least be charged with some sort of contributory act for following Martin after his instruction not to do so. He was not in danger until he followed the boy.

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    • That would be correct if logic played any role in this…but it doesn’t. Florida had a case in which a man saw another guy boosting a radio from his car. The man grabbed a knife from the kitchen and chased the guy down. He caught up with the thief at his car, and the thief turned on the man with the knife and tried to hit the man with the stolen radio. The man stabbed him to death. He then took back his radio (along with several other stolen radios he found in the thief’s car). He didn’t report the crime to the police, he got rid of the knife, and he sold the other stolen radios. When he was finally caught, he claimed self-defense…and the judge dismissed the case against him.

      By Florida law, the only thing that matters is whether the accused had a reasonable belief that his life or safety was at risk at the time he kills the other guy.

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    • Greg… it is my assumption that the jury can actually disregard the law in its purest form and convict on what it believes his intent to be, am I not correct? It’s difficult for me to believe that all six people won’t have some degree of “reasonable” doubt and therefore let him walk, but a jury is always an unknown quantity, no, when it comes to making such verdicts? If everyone in the jury agrees that Zimmerman never should have followed Martin and confronted him, they can convict him, right?

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      • Yes, technically the jury CAN disregard the law — but they rarely do. Most juries don’t even know they have that power. Sometimes the defense team will ask the judge to include a jury nullification instruction when he or she instructs the jury how to deliberate (I’ve never heard of the prosecution asking for nullification, but I suppose they could in this case).

        I think the only chance for a conviction would be if the jurors balked at the notion of ‘reasonableness.’ The prosecution has to prove that a reasonable person in Zimmerman’s situation wouldn’t have feared for his life or safety at the time he pulled the trigger. That won’t be easy.

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  4. It makes me really angry he can claim self-defense when it seems Martin was the one doing the defending, and Zimmerman wouldn’t be in court at all if he hadn’t willingly put himself in a position where he attacked Martin. It’s like a kid killing his parents and then crying for sympathy because he’s an orphan. Yes, he is an orphan, just as Zimmerman may have been, at the moment he pulled the trigger, in fear for his safety. But that doesn’t make it a valid plea for mercy.

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    • It IS angering, isn’t it. But the fact is we don’t really know who first assaulted whom. We know that Zimmerman initiated the sequence of events that led to Martin being killed, but the only person who knows who actually made the first hostile move is Zimmerman, and he’s claiming it was the unarmed kid. Ethically and morally Zimmerman bears some responsibility for what happened — and maybe the majority of the responsibility. But legally…well, we’ll find out, won’t we.

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