On February 26, 2012, 17 year old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by 28 year old George Zimmerman. Zimmerman was questioned, treated for injuries that included a broken nose and facial lacerations. He was not charged. And then the protests kicked off. Unsurprisingly, some people were upset that an unarmed teenager had seemingly been racially profiled, stalked and killed.
And then the authorities changed their mind. Zimmerman was charged, and public opinion split. Half thought that Zimmerman was a White Supremacist who hunted black children for fun. The other half decided that Trayvon Martin was a degenerate drug fiend. Even the media got in on the act. For some reason, much of the media decided to portray Trayvon as 4 years younger than he actually was, using photos of Martin as a 13 year old. The conservative media response was predictable – they decided to find the photo that made Trayvon look the most like a gangster. It wasn’t about truth, it wasn’t about justice, it was about tribalism.
And to be clear, I’m not immune to taking sides. I was shocked and appalled by the way that Trayvon was killed. My personal opinion is that this was a case of racial profiling by an overzealous neighbourhood-watch volunteer, aggravated by the presence of a firearm. But that’s all it is. This is my personal opinion, swayed in no small part by my personal prejudices (my natural instinct is to connect to the victim, calling him Trayvon, while I refer to the accused as Zimmerman).
Only George Zimmerman knows exactly what happened that night, and yet you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that huge swathes of the US population are 100% certain that they are privy to special knowledge that enables them to discern the truth. I sure don’t know the truth, but I know that I would have found it tough to eliminate reasonable doubt, based on my understanding of the evidence.
Bizarrely, on this case, I find myself sharing a position on Zimmerman’s guilt (though not on his character) with a particularly unsavoury cast of personalities. I normally find myself sharing common cause with civil libertarians, who recognise that the right to fair trial is paramount. That the adversarial system requires the prosecution to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt for good reason. That wrongful conviction is a greater wrong than wrongful acquittal.
However, in this case, my regular bed-fellows are calling for summary conviction (and in some cases, prison rape, something that I expect to come out of different quarters). On the other side, the bulk of those vocal about Zimmerman’s innocence are doing so because they perceive Zimmerman as the victim. I’m really uncomfortable with the company I’m keeping, and I think that many of them have taken sides for odious reasons, but that doesn’t make me prepared to throw away my principles.
For me, it’s simple. The evidence wasn’t there to convict and, Zimmerman wasn’t convicted. He’s innocent (please don’t try on the “not guilty /= innocent” trash. It absolutely does… unless you think innocent until proven guilty means nothing).
And yet, I think he is culpable for Trayvon Martin’s death, and that the problem lies with Florida law.
In 2005, Florida passed an amendment to self-defence that withdrew any requirement to retreat or escape where possible. The relevant statute reads:
Florida Statutes CHAPTER 776 JUSTIFIABLE USE OF FORCE
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;…
Whether “stand your ground” was used in this case is in dispute, but Attorney General Eric Holder makes the problem clear:
“Separate and apart from the case that has drawn the nation’s attention, it’s time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods,”
Laws like Stand Your Ground send a message – that rather than deferring to the authorities, or taking the sensible option, which is clearly to retreat, you should take aggressive and violent action. This coupled with the ability to carry a concealed weapon, is a toxic cocktail.
I’ve already made clear my opinion on gun control and I’m not alone in thinking that Zimmerman’s possession of the firearm gave him the confidence to follow the victim. This is just another example of where someone’s ability to carry a gun, along with a belief that it is their right to act in place of law enforcement, has collided, resulting in the tragic death of a teenager.
With the passing of Stand your Ground and the Zimmerman verdict, we have confirmation that Florida might as well be the wild west. You can genuinely create a conflict (as long as you don’t actually initiate force) and then use deadly force to get yourself out of trouble. What a world.