In Seminole County, Fla., questions on the nature of race and the right to “stand your ground” will soon be put to the test. Jury selection for the case of the State of Florida v. George Zimmerman began Monday.
Over the 15 and a half months since Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old high school student, the nation has teetered between outrage and accommodation, between the right to walk freely and the right to stand your ground, and between the right to own and carry a gun and the right to be safe from gun violence.
While emotions are high now, it is unclear how this case will affect the national conversation after the verdict — if it will affect it at all.
Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, confronted and ultimately killed Martin, a Black teenager who was walking home in the rain after buying iced tea and Skittles from a 7-Eleven store. In the aftermath of the shooting, the nation became split between Zimmerman’s right to “stand his ground” and Martin’s right to not be harassed simply on the basis of his race.
Interpretations of the case
“What is most needed — more than just keeping the focus on Trayvon — is for his death to spark an uprising of awareness and consciousness, maybe similar to what Emmett Till’s death did in 1955,” columnist Roland Martin said in an appearance on CNN. “Till’s lynching death in Mississippi helped spark the Civil Rights Movement, which radically altered the course of this nation. It’s time for America to move beyond the mind-set of me, myself and I, and understand that this is about we, us and our. For every Trayvon Martin, there are thousands of others who don’t get the media attention, but they deserve justice, too. This isn’t about black or white; it’s about what’s right and wrong; fair and unfair.”
Defenders of Zimmerman feel the case has morphed into something symbolic rather than simply a study of the situation and how the law reflects on it. Frank Taaffe, a neighbor of George Zimmerman, argued during an interview with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien that Zimmerman reacted to a history of crime in the neighborhood.
“We had eight burglaries in our neighborhood, all perpetrated by young black males in the 15 months prior to Trayvon being shot,” Taaffe said.
When O’Brien asked how many of these cases led to arrests, Taaffe responded, “One that I know of where the perpetrator was apprehended. The young black male went in during the daytime just two houses down from where my my place was.”
“George did not surveil just one group of people,” Taaffe told CNN panelist Will Cain. “You’re asking if George profiled one group of people in my mind. And George looked at the whole landscape when he surveilled our property. It just so happened that the prior eight burglaries were perpetrated by young black males.”
It is in this duality — Zimmerman the alleged racist versus Zimmerman the watchguard — that the argument is fought. If it is said that Zimmerman, who is half-Hispanic, shot Martin on purely racial grounds or for unprovoked reasons, the case becomes an indictment of the availability of guns to the mentally impaired and the ethics of “stand your ground” laws. However, if it is said that Zimmerman was within his rights to perceive danger and to act accordingly, the incident will serve to argue against the media litigating a case before it is heard in court.
“The Zimmerman trial will be one of the most-watched trials of this decade because of the issues of racial profiling and stereotyping,” said Areva Martin, managing partner for Martin & Martin — one of California’s largest female-owned law firms — and a leading attorney and disability rights advocate, in an interview with Mint Press News. “One trial and one outcome is not going to change decades of entrenched attitudes and stereotypes. But no matter what the outcome, the trial is forcing America to have a painfully honest discussion that many falsely believed we never had to have post-Obama’s election.”
The People v. “Stand Your Ground”
Darren Kavinoky is a criminal behavior expert and the host and producer of Investigation Discovery’s “Deadly Sins.”
In conversation with Mint Press News, Kavinoky stated: “The Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case has the potential to result in significant legal and social change, but there’s no guarantee. It is a ‘necessary but not necessarily sufficient condition’ to spark this evolution in our collective thinking. The opportunity arises from having dialogue, a national conversation about the issues that this case surfaces, including race, gun ownership, and Florida’s now-infamous ‘stand your ground’ laws.”
“That said, unless a leader emerges to facilitate a conversation that shows respect for both sides, it is nothing more than each side shouting ever-louder at one another, sound and fury signifying nothing,” Kavinoky continued. “One need only look to the social media posts to see this in action. Unlike other recent high-profile cases (e.g., Jodi Arias or Casey Anthony), opinions in the death of Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman are so conflicting, polarizing, and unyielding, it doesn’t appear any meaningful communication is taking place. The disgrace would be if we, collectively, are no better off after the trial of George Zimmerman. That’s on us.”
This case centers around Florida’s “stand your ground” law. Introduced and passed under a Republican majority through lobbying by the American Legislative Exchange Council — a conservative non-profit that authors model legislation that favors its corporate sponsors and the national conservative platform — the law permits a person to freely engage a potential threat with deadly force without the need to personally retreat from the situation.
Many — including the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence — say the bill provides a “shoot first, ask questions later” justification for gun owners. Since the bill became law, the number of self-defense claims in Florida tripled — including the case of Ralph Wald, who on March 10 shot Walter Conley. Wald, 70, caught Conley, 32, having sex with Wald’s wife, Johnna Lynn Flores, 41. Wald told the courts that he shot Conley in the head and chest because he assumed that Conley was raping his wife. It took the jury less than 2 hours to acquit Wald.
“If the same thing happened again, I would do the same thing,” Wald said on the stand in his own defense. “I didn’t think I did anything wrong. I had a problem, I found someone raping my wife. I took care of it. I got a gun and I shot him.”
The Florida law created a situation in which any unwitnessed homicide can be called a “stand your ground” situation. In most states, self-defense must meet the “castle doctrine,” in which a person — when confronted with a threat — must make every effort to retreat or escape from that threat. Only if escape is not possible or the threat extends to one’s family can a person assume deadly force. The Florida law not only erases the responsibility to take extreme action only in extreme cases, it also trumps other legal restrictions.
An example of this is the case of Aaron Little. On April 10, the Florida Court of Appeals ruled that the state’s “stand your ground” law immunized Little not only from second-degree murder charges, but also from a separate charge of illegal possession of a firearm. Little is a convicted felon and could not legally own or carry a firearm.
After the case
David Mark, the editor-in-chief of Politix, told Mint Press News there is little hope that the Zimmerman case will help roll back “stand your ground” in Florida or any of the other 15 states that have similar laws. However, the case may prevent other states from adopting “stand your ground.”
More pointedly, the case may curb ALEC’s clout in pushing through legislation. Due to major protests and boycotts against ALEC’s corporate sponsors, and the resulting pullback in sponsorship, ALEC has reduced its presence in many elements of legislative lobbying, although the group still authors draft legislation.
“The massive amount of publicity revolving around the George Zimmerman murder trial has largely centered on the issue of race relations and the dangers of racial profiling,” Alison Triessl, a Los Angeles criminal defense attorney and head of the Los Angeles County Criminal Courts Bar Association, told Mint Press News. “While it is not clear whether this trial will have an impact on how we view race relations as a society, that may be attributing too much to a single trial, this level of media scrutiny may have the most direct impact on the actual law itself. The ‘stand your ground’ law in Florida has come under fire and this degree of national attention will force lawmakers to at least reconsider the statute.”
“Most states require that a person at least attempt to retreat (unless they are in their home) before responding with deadly force,” Triessl continued. “This makes Florida look more like the Wild West with a shoot first and ask questions later attitude, and Florida lawmakers may be just fine with that. However, if Zimmerman is acquitted using this specific ‘stand your ground’ defense then there will undoubtedly be a call to change the law and we’ll have to see if Florida lawmakers will succumb to that pressure.”
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