The Travon Martin Murder Trial
The Trayvon Martin murder case is over now, and George Zimmerman has been acquitted. The nation is an uproar; protests and rioting are sprouting up everywhere in response to the verdict. The trial has raised questions about self defense, racism, and our Justice system as we attempt to understand the events of that night and the subsequent trial.
The Reality of Self Defense
Trayvon Martin’s death hit quite close to home, since we specialize in teaching self defense. We always tell our students that it’s best to escape than to attempt to see a fight through; give yourself that window of opportunity – even it requires being physical, to flee. And in context of both point of views – George and Trayvon’s – I can see how that would have come into play.
Something they teach police officers is a concept of escalating violence; to stop someone’s violence you must be more violent than them. For example, if you’re being beat up, you can’t stop the attacker by shouting – you have to attack them back and with greater force. It’s about taking control of the situation. Something else they teach Law Enforcement is that every encounter is an armed encounter – since you have a gun that your bringing into the situation. This also demands a higher sense of responsibility, since it makes the situation more dangerous for both parties.
We also teach our students that if you have to use deadly force, you must have been “in fear for you life”. And we don’t mean you simply tell that to police, but that the situation must truly reflect it – that you really felt it. If not, then you may have just committed murder. And this is where the legal aspect of Self Defense comes into play.
What is the “Stand Your Ground Law”
In short, the law says that you can “stand your ground” and defend yourself without needing to first retreat. If you feel reasonably threatened, the law protects you to fight back without first trying to escape. This type of law is very common and found through out the United States – including here in California. Each state has it’s own interpretation of the law. In Florida, where Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, the law reads as follows:
A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
Put in plain language, if you have reasonable belief that someone is about to cause great bodily harm to you or someone else, you can use any force reasonably necessary without first attempting to retreat. The point of this law is to give someone the legal standing to defend themselves if the situation allows it.
In context of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, if we assume that Trayvon was indeed attacking and beating up George Zimmerman – including hitting George Zimmerman’s head into the concrete, one could reasonable assume that George Zimmerman was facing “grave bodily harm” or even death. Therefore, he is protected by the law to use deadly force to defend himself.
In fact, if you watch the interview on CNN with Juror B-37, this is the issue that led to George Zimmerman’s acquittal:
So we can say that the Justice system worked, and this is a clear-cut case of justifiable self-defense, right? Not necessarily…
The Moments Before the Murder
To focus entirely on that moment, would neglect the complexities that led to it.
If we take George Zimmerman’s side of the story, and unfortunately Trayvon can’t give his side, then George Zimmerman observed what he deemed suspicious behavior. You could argue that he was racially motivated – that if it was a white kid he wouldn’t have paid any attention. There is no way to know – and in terms of the legal implications of that night I would argue that it has little bearing. His actions, however did.
After contacting 911 dispatch, he was told to stay in the vehicle. He still chose to confront Trayvon Martin instead of allowing the police to handle the situation. From all accounts, although Trayvon might of been acting suspicous, there was nothing to indicate that he was an immediate threat to anyone’s well being. If he saw Trayvon to start to climb through a window, it would have been a different story. But all he had were his suspicions.
Where it gets interesting is if we were to look at the situation unfolding from Trayvon Martin’s point of view, and there was some indication of what he may had been thinking at the time. He expressed concern over the “creepy guy” following him while talking to his girl friend on the phone. There was statements that he attempted to flee from George Zimmerman. One could argue that he was afraid of George Zimmerman.
If he was afraid that George Zimmerman posed great bodily harm to Trayvon, then the law protects Trayvon to protect himself – even if he may had thrown the first punch. The real question is if it was reasonable. Put yourself in his position; a young black male walking home is followed and confronted by a stranger who is not a police officer. Did he identify himself as armed? What did he say specifically? What was his tone in speaking to Trayvon? If Trayvon attempted to flee – why did he? It is indeed possible that Trayvon was within his legal right even if he initiated the fight.
George Zimmerman then fought back, or possibly pursued Trayvon, compounding the situation’s intensity. Trayvon responded with greater violence, until George felt he had no other choice but to use deadly force.
My Opinion of What Happened
I believe that George Zimmerman had a bit of a hero complex; not in a negative way per se, but that he genuinely was attempting to do the right thing. I think he handled the situation poorly when talking to Trayvon, a 17 year old kid who probably had a bit of a chip on his should like most 17 years old do. And when the situation exploded, George Zimmerman had no idea how to deal with it; he wasn’t a police officer – nor had any real type of training – and quickly became overwhelmed. I don’t think Trayvon had any attention beyond beating up a guy that was harassing him. Maybe he took the fight too far – it’s easy to keep going when you have adrenaline pumping in your system. Maybe he was just afraid to let George get back up to retaliate.
Who is truly at fault
I would say both George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin handled things poorly. Trayvon Martin was likely not up to anything, and George Zimmerman probably had no desires to shoot anyone that night. Yet both their actions led to Trayvon Martin being shot. If George Zimmerman let the police handle it, Trayvon still may have reacted violently. If Trayvon wasn’t as a rebellious 17 year old and just talked to George Zimmerman, George may have still attacked him. It’s likley though that Trayvon would have just talked to the police, and George would have just got his info and let him go – or at least kept him talking until the police arrived – instead of what actually happened.
However, it was George who took the responsibility to confront Trayvon. It was George who made the choice to pursue Trayvon if he did attempt to flee. George Zimmerman I would say created the situation when he was unprepared for it, and brought the weapon that would take Trayvon’s life. I wouldn’t consider him a murder, but I do think he is responsible for Trayvon’s murder, and a charge of Manslaughter would be more appropriate due to his negligence in handling things that night.
Did race have an issue? Yes it did. Studies have shown that we all are a bit programmed by society’s stereotypes, even at an unconscious level (there is a great chapter regarding this in Malcolm’s Gladwell’s book “Blink” about the findings of a psychological study). I also think Trayvon’s reaction had something to do with race – he probably felt unfairly targeted for his skin color because…well…that happens a lot in this country. It reminds me of a program on the radio, where it talks about the self-fulfilling prophecy of stereotypes, and how we sometimes buy into what others say or think of us (I believe it was a RadioLab on NPR). So although I don’t think either party was racist – in the sense of a hate crime, I do think race had an influence. And while we are now at a point in our history that we elect a black man to the highest office, racism does indeed still exist – and can affect a situation.
This also shows how even small decisions can have huge repercussions. There is no replacement for good judgement. And I think both didn’t use good judgement. Still, Trayvon was a 17 year old kid – an impulsive teenager, while George Zimmerman was an adult – and decided to take on a certain responsibility for his community. And in doing so, George should also bear the greater responsibility for the consequences of his actions.
Even the Noblest intentions can have terrible consequence.
Agree or disagree? Tell us your opinion in the comments below.