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Commentary: The Trayvon Martin case: Ill winds blow in Sanford

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 29, 2012 - Based on published news reports, I may be the only person in North American who doesn’t know exactly what happened in Sanford, Fla., on the evening of Feb. 26. I do know that an unarmed teenager named Trayvon Martin was shot dead there that night by one George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old neighborhood watch captain. As a fellow parent, I can imagine the heart-breaking loss the young man’s mother and father have endured. May God bless and comfort them.

The case received scant initial press coverage but subsequently spread via social media until becoming a national obsession. Because Martin was black and Zimmerman is Hispanic, racial overtones have fueled outrage that makes a dispassionate inquiry into what actually happened difficult at best.

To further complicate the problem, the Sanford police department has done a generally poor job of communicating with the public it serves. Had a spokesman come forward with a clear, concise statement explaining what actions the police took and why, much of the confusion over the incident might have been dispelled.

Instead, critical facts have come to light in fits and starts, leaving the viewer to stitch them together into some form of coherent narrative.  Predictably, liberals hear one story while conservatives come away with another. I understand that cops are reticent to speak with the press lest a casual remark might later jeopardize a court proceeding, but in a democratic society people have a right to know why an unarmed kid was killed and the guy who shot him wasn’t even arrested, much less charged.

One clear victim here is the law itself. From the moment the story broke, Florida’s so-called “Stand Your Ground” law has been cited as the reason the shooter could not be prosecuted. Though the wisdom of such legislation is open to debate, the assertion that it legalizes willful slaughter is absurd.

When a person claims self-defense as a justification for taking a life, he is positing what legal scholars call an “affirmative defense.” He admits the act but denies criminal intent. Historically, it had been the burden of the party making the claim to demonstrate that he had no other viable option to defend himself. If, for instance, he could have simply fled to avoid the confrontation, the claim of self-defense was usually rejected.

In recent years, several states have passed laws patterned after the “Castle Doctrine.” This principle absolves the victim of a home invasion from the burden of proving that he had no alternative to deadly force when defending his domicile. 

If an intruder breaks into your house, he’s fair game and you’re immunized from both criminal and civil prosecution for killing him. You can be neither arrested nor sued under these circumstances. The legal onus is thus shifted from the victim to the burglar, which seems fair enough.

Needless to say, such laws are popular with the gun lobby. Both Missouri and Florida have enacted Castle Doctrine legislation and both states allow private citizens to obtain concealed-carry permits to arm themselves when away from home.

The “Stand Your Ground” law — which Missouri has not enacted — essentially makes the Castle Doctrine as portable as your pistol. It relieves the citizen of the duty to retreat when confronted by an aggressor in a public place. Instead, the victim is free to defend himself by whatever means necessary without having to prove that his actions were a last resort. This includes shooting the assailant if the victim is placed in reasonable fear of grave bodily harm.
Obviously, the facts on the ground determine how the law is applied. Zimmerman had called the police to report Trayvon as a suspicious person before the fatal encounter. That action argues strongly that he did not intend to commit a crime because criminals normally do not alert the cops before breaking the law.

On the other hand, tapes reflect that the 911 dispatcher clearly instructed Zimmerman not to follow the suspect but to await the arrival of officers. Zimmerman is not a cop and has no legal authority to detain a fellow citizen who he thinks looks “suspicious."

For his part, Trayvon was reportedly talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone shortly before his death. She says he told her that he was being followed by a guy in an SUV who turned out to be Zimmerman. 

Zimmerman supposedly wound up with a broken nose and gashes to the back of his head. He claims that Trayvon attacked him from behind while he was “walking back to his car.” Q: Why did he get out of the car in the first place?

If Zimmerman accosted Trayvon because he was simply walking down the street, the young man would have been justified to defend himself under Stand Your Ground. But if Zimmerman was walking away, it’s difficult to claim self-defense when your potential assailant is leaving. And if Zimmerman was jumped from behind, Stand Your Ground would not apply to his retaliatory actions because no state requires you to be beaten senseless before defending yourself.

The Department of Justice is now investigating the incident. Ironically, Zimmerman’s amateur status protects him against the most obvious venue of federal prosecution. Congress has made it a felony to deprive a citizen of his civil rights “while acting under color of law.” That’s the statute that was invoked in the Rodney King case. Because Zimmerman held no legal authority, he could not act under color of law and there’s no federal protection from an annoying neighborhood busybody.

There is a federal law that covers hate crimes. As of this writing, however, there is no evidence that this encounter was racially motivated and it’s reasonable to presume that Zimmerman would not have called the police if he planned to commit such an offense.

The adage has it that an ill wind blows no good. This case seems to answer that description.

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