Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” Law: Self Defense, Duty to Retreat, and the death of a 17 year-old boy

Since the death of seventeen year-old Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman in February of this year, much media attention has been on Florida Revised Code Section 776.013, better known as the “Stand Your Ground” law.  This law, unlike most self-defense laws in the United States, does not require a person to retreat from danger prior to using deadly force.  Additionally, it presumes a reasonable fear of imminent bodily harm on the part of person claiming self-defense, as opposed to requiring the defendant to prove it.  This results in many deaths that would be charged as homicides in the majority of the United States being deemed justifiable and the killers walking free.  Not surprisingly, this law has met with extreme criticism since its passage, most recently with the death of a seventeen year-old boy.

It is unclear what exactly occurred on February 26, 2012.   What is known is that on that date, Trayvon Martin – a seventeen year-old visiting the gated community of The Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford, Florida – was spotted by community watch member George Zimmerman.  Zimmerman called the Sanford Police Department and stated that Trayvon looked “suspicious.”  Zimmerman exited his car and minutes later Trayvon Martin was dead, shot in the chest at close range by Zimmerman.  Zimmerman had several abrasions on his head and claimed there had been an altercation.  He stated that he acted in self-defense.  Zimmerman was interviewed by police and released without being charged.  Only after the public outcry did a special prosecutor choose to indict Zimmerman in April 2012 of second degree murder.

The question remains, however, if under Florida law Zimmerman can be convicted of homicide.  In Ohio, he certainly could.  Ohio, unlike Florida, requires three elements that the defendant must prove by a preponderance of the evidence (more than 50%) to establish self-defense when deadly force has been used:  (1) the slayer was not at fault in creating the situation giving rise to the affray; (2) the slayer has a bona fide belief that he was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that his only means of escape from such danger was the use of such force; and (3) the slayer must not have violated any duty to retreat or avoid the danger.  In Zimmerman’s case, it is certainly arguable that he could be found at fault in creating the altercation with Trayvon Martin; he exited the vehicle and approached Trayvon.  Similarly, under Ohio law, Zimmerman would have a hard time proving that he had a bona fide belief that he was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he could only escape by using deadly force.  The fact is that Trayvon Martin was a seventeen year-old kid on foot on a public sidewalk.  Conversely, Zimmerman was an armed, twenty-eight year-old man with access to a vehicle.  Therefore, in Ohio, it would likely be found that even if there was a an altercation, the chances of a bigger, armed man having a bona fide belief that a slightly built young boy would cause him great bodily harm or death is slight.  Finally, by “standing his ground” instead of getting into his car and leaving the scene, under Ohio law Zimmerman would likely be found to have violated his duty to retreat or duty to avoid danger.  Therefore, in Ohio, Zimmerman would likely be unable to meet the burden for self-defense, and a conviction for second-degree murder would certainly be a possibility.

Florida’s laws, however, are very different and as states above, do not require the slayer to have a bona fide belief of imminent death or bodily harm or to retreat from danger.  Instead to qualify as self-defense, all a person needs is a “reasonable belief” of imminent death or bodily harm; a belief that Zimmerman may be able to convince a jury that Trayvon Martin – an African-American youth wearing a hoodie in a gated community – was reasonable under the circumstances.  If he can do that, then the inquiry will end.  As long as his belief was reasonable, under Florida law, Zimmerman was well within his rights to shoot and kill Trayvon Martin and he should be acquitted of all charges and found not guilty of homicide.  This may not seem “right,” but it is how the statute is written.

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