[Let me preface this by saying that I am neither a police officer nor a lawyer. The following discussion about the law is a lay person’s view of it.]
TRAYVON MARTIN’S ACTIONS UNDER THE “STAND YOUR GROUND” LAW
Picking up where I left off in my last post, I wanted to look at the assertion by some that Trayvon Martin had the right to start the fight with George Zimmerman under the “Stand Your Ground”. Note that we are still operating under the scenario that Zimmerman’s story, as we know it so far, is true–Zimmerman lost sight of Martin, and Martin later came back and approached Zimmerman and threw the first punch.
The assertion usually goes like this: “Zimmerman scared Martin by following him, and Martin had the right to confront him. He didn’t have a duty to retreat. Even if Martin threw the first punch, he was still justified.”
Let’s look at the statute again (so you don’t have to click back to the last blog post):
776.012 Use of force in defense of person.—A person is justified in using force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force. However, a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if:
(1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony…
Let’s start with the first sentence, which deals with other than deadly force. A couple things strike me as important. First, the person has to believe that unlawful force is “imminent”, and second, that belief has to be reasonable. Under our scenario, it would be hard to argue that any force Zimmerman might use against Martin was “imminent”. Zimmerman had lost sight of Martin and stopped pursuit. What if Martin didn’t know that, though, and maybe thought he was still being pursued and decided to “stand his ground”, return and confront Zimmerman.
Martin returning to confront Zimmerman and ask him if he is following Martin is not illegal, any more than Zimmerman approaching Martin and asking what he was doing there was (if we take Martin’s girlfriend at her word). However, once they are face-to-face again, any danger would be imminent, so we would have to look at the reasonableness of Martin’s belief that Zimmerman was about to use unlawful force.
This is the tricky part of the law, and I don’t think there is a clear-cut answer. My opinion is that–absent any verbal or physical threat–it is NOT reasonable to believe that someone means you harm simply because he has followed you a short distance. And Zimmerman asking Martin what he was doing there, if that occurred, also does not seem to reasonable grounds to assume Zimmerman was going to attack Martin.
Some would argue otherwise, that simply following is threatening. I can certainly understand that being followed might feel threatening to some–perhaps even most of us–but that is a vague threat, a “I wonder what he wants? Does he want to hurt me? Steal from me?” kind of a threat. But until the follower approaches, it’s not imminent and it’s not specific.
Ultimately, though, I think a court and/or jury would have to make this call. It is not clear-cut to me how such a claim would shake out.
BUT DEADLY FORCE?
The second sentence of the statute talks about when deadly force can be used. Again, under Zimmerman’s scenario, Martin banged his head into the concrete more than once.
This is deadly force. Let me repeat this: Banging someone’s head into the concrete is deadly force. It can crush a skull and cause brain damage or death in a very short period of time. And you can’t say, “Well, I’ll only smash his head hard enough that it hurts, not that it kills him.” because it is impossible for an attacker to know just how much force is too much. Therefore as soon as the attacker does this, the possibility of death or great bodily harm is immediate and real.
So was Martin warranted in using deadly force? He would have to reasonably believe that Zimmerman was about to kill him or cause him great bodily harm,.
I just don’t see it.
Let’s assume for a moment that a court would say, “Yes, following someone is considered a threat of immediate harm.” Is it reasonable for Martin to assume that that threat was so great that he could be killed or sustain great bodily harm?
I’m not so sure it is. Martin was a big kid, 6’2 or 6’3″, and 150 to 160 lbs. Zimmerman is much shorter, 170 to 180 lbs. Martin was athletic–he played football–and physical and he had reach on Zimmerman. Zimmerman is stocky, maybe pudgy, but certainly not a lean fit 5’9″. Zimmerman’s gun was concealed. In a fist fight, absent weapons, Martin certainly had the physical size and stamina to hold his own.
The only way Martin’s use of deadly force would be justified, in my opinion, is if he saw Zimmerman’s gun (before he used deadly force) and if Zimmerman made an overt threat to him. Under Zimmerman’s scenario, however, the gun didn’t become visible until later in the fight.
To summarize, Martin throwing the first punch might be justified under current Florida law, if one could prove that the act of following along is a sufficient threat of the immediate use of unlawful force. Martin’s use of deadly force does not appear to be justified under this scenario
Other possibilities. What if Zimmerman “chased down” Martin as some have claimed? What then?