July 16, 2013

A few thoughts on the Zimmerman case

As an intellectual exercise, occasionally I like to delve into the controversies du jour to test my own cultural mental health; to wit, is it me or American culture that's completely nuts?

The Zimmerman case is the latest such cause célèbre.  The standard formulation is that an innocent African-American youth was gunned down by a vigilante who took refuge behind Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law and was thus acquitted by a redneck jury in a redneck state.  Is this what happened?

First, I have no problem with people becoming upset with what happened.  A young guy is dead, his death was unnecessary, it's a tragedy for his family; however, his death is part of a much broader critique, in my view, although I think the media-inflamed national conversation does not seek to acknowledge this.  The critique is really of violent American society.  If you look at it that way, however, the whole "narrative" goes away and you wind up with saccharine pronouncements of the kind President Obama offered in the wake of Zimmerman's acquittal (the President was, as always, careful not to offend anybody or to actually take a position).

I think the Zimmerman case is a poor vehicle for the purposes it's being put to.  In the first place, did the Zimmerman case even involve the "Stand Your Ground" law?  Answering this question, of course, would require someone, somewhere, to read the law.  So I did.  The SYG law is an extension of the "Castle" doctrine.  About half the states and federal law allow a person to use deadly force to defend against an intruder if the person using the force reasonably believes he/she is in imminent danger of deadly force or great bodily harm at the hands of the intruder while such person is on his/her premises.  That is, you don't have to retreat from your own "castle" even if it could be safely done.  This is not too different from standard self-defense, but it is different.  (Texas goes a little farther and requires you to shoot the intruder, or you will be denied admittance to your neighborhood bar the following Saturday night.)

SYG laws (in Flordia and a few other states, including Washington state, somewhat surprisingly) expand the doctrine to include anywhere you are, even in public areas.  If you can retreat safely rather than use deadly force, it doesn't matter.  That certainly is a questionable doctrine; it seems to encourage homicide where it isn't necessary, by definition.  I'm not sure what public purpose it serves - homicide is better than humiliation or even inconvenience? 

Yet here's my question: on the facts as tried in the Zimmerman matter, as I read and understand them, what does the Stand Your Ground Law have to do with the case?  If George Zimmerman had a right to self-defense, as the jury found, did it arise under circumstances where he could have "safely retreated" as an alternative to using his gun?  The jury concluded that Zimmerman was on the ground, that his head had been banged against concrete by Trayvon Martin at least once, that Zimmerman feared it would happen again, and that he was being beaten by Martin's fists.  An eyewitness corroborated this version of events.

One can disagree with this version of the case.  One can call the whole account a fabrication and argue a different set of facts.  So be it.  But that isn't the case that the jury tried.  The prosecuting attorney (the D.A.), in fact, called the chief corroborating witness (the eyewitness to the version in which Martin sat astride Zimmerman, beating him) as his own witness.

If the eyewitness account is wrong, if Zimmerman was actually standing, not under assault (or if under assault could nevertheless have safely retreated), then of course the SYG defense would have come into play.  But, as I said, that's not the case the jury tried.

I think the general public, egged on by uninformed or deliberately misleading media cheerleaders, have seized on Stand Your Ground as a handle for unfocused outrage, although it has nothing to do with anything.  Nothing much new there.  The real sadness, the real outrage, is that we live in a country where people walk around with concealed weapons, hassle other people knowing they're carrying the decisive edge if they provoke something (as Zimmerman no doubt did by stalking Martin unnecessarily and unfairly), and then blow the person they're hassling away with the full majesty of the law on their side.

But Zimmerman would have been acquitted under standard self-defense law.  What led up to that decisive, fatal moment, is the real problem - the problem you might call life in modern America.

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