Self-Defense Law in the Spotlight

By Alvarez, Lizette | International Herald Tribune, March 22, 2012 | Go to article overview

Self-Defense Law in the Spotlight


Alvarez, Lizette, International Herald Tribune


The U.S. Justice Department has opened an investigation into the fatal shooting last month of an unarmed black Florida teenager by a crime-watch volunteer, a case that has set off a national outcry.

CORRECTION APPENDED

Seven years after Florida adopted a sweeping self-defense law, the shooting of an unarmed black teenager has put that law at the center of an increasingly vocal debate over how he was killed and whether law enforcement officials have the authority to charge the man who killed him.

The law, called Stand Your Ground, is one of 21 self-defense laws in the United States, many of which were enacted in the past few years. The National Rifle Association, a major advocate for gun rights in the United States, had pushed heavily for the Florida law, while law enforcement officers had vigorously opposed it.

The Stand Your Ground law gives the benefit of the doubt to a person who claims to have killed in self-defense, regardless of whether the killing took place on a street, in a car or in a bar. In more restrictive laws, the standard for self-defense is generally for a killing to take place in one's home.

In Florida, if people feel they are in imminent danger of being killed or badly wounded, they do not have to retreat, even if it would seem reasonable to do so. Instead, they have the right to "stand their ground" and to protect themselves.

That is the question at issue in the present case: Was the gunman, George Zimmerman, 28, a crime watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida, in imminent danger and acting in self-defense during his encounter with the 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, as he asserts?

In the three weeks since Trayvon, a high school student from Miami with no criminal record, was killed, public protests across Florida and the United States have grown larger and louder, and so have calls for Mr. Zimmerman's arrest. The Police Department in Sanford said that under the Stand Your Ground law in Florida, it had no call to act against Mr. Zimmerman.

But late Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice said it had opened an inquiry into the shooting. That investigation will run parallel with one announced Tuesday by the state attorney in Seminole County, Florida, who said a grand jury would be convened. State attorneys often use grand juries in cases where they cannot make a clear independent call, or when a case is deemed explosive.

In recent days, Trayvon's parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, have issued pleas for law enforcement officers to take action, and social media campaigns, led by the advocacy Web site change.org, have pushed for the U.S. justice system to act. Celebrities including the actor and director Spike Lee and the singer John Legend have joined the effort.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, a well-known civil rights advocate who has said he will attend a rally in Sanford this week, said he was planning to raise awareness about the Florida law, which he characterized as encouraging vigilante justice. "People can't take the law in their own hands," he said.

On Tuesday evening in Sanford, hundreds of people gathered at the Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church as community leaders and residents gave testimonials of police harassment and as representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People criticize the Stand Your Ground law. The spirited crowd called for the arrest of Mr. Zimmerman and the ouster of Sanford's police chief.

"The line has been drawn in the sand," said Turner Clayton, head of the Seminole County N.A.A.C.P. office.

Benjamin Crump, a lawyer representing Trayvon's parents, said at a news conference Tuesday that Trayvon had been speaking to his girlfriend on his cellphone minutes before he was shot and killed, and that Trayvon had told her that a man was following him.

Trayvon then told his girlfriend that he was being confronted, Mr. Crump said, and when she told him to run, he said he would "walk fast. …

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