I know this is a blog about raising vegetables, but there are times when I feel that I have to say something about the current state of affairs and this is one of them. I thought about the best way to get people to think about this and came up with the idea of a thought experiment. I’m imagining a scenario in which someone is shot dead. Two people are involved, one real and one fictional.
The fictional person’s name is Travis Maxwell, a name I just made up. Travis is a teenager, his parents divorced. Normally he lives with his mother in Springfield, Missouri but this week he is staying with his dad, who lives in a condo in Sanford, Florida where he moved after the divorce and started a small electrical contracting business. Travis is a typical teenager, an average student, been in a few scrapes, likes music that adults hate, wears his cap backwards, can be truly obnoxious at times, smokes some weed once in a while, and tries to talk tough, like he’s a real player. He grew up in a rural area of west Missouri, some would say redneck, before his parents moved to Springfield. Travis knows how to hunt and fish, and can handle a gun. His family life has been a little rocky with the divorce, but his parents made sure he was taken care of, and Travis has got enough smarts not to go down the rabbit hole, even though he may sometimes come across as a real dillweed. The night of the NBA all-star game, Travis leaves his dad’s condo at halftime to go to the 7-11 and buy some snacks. He’s heard the stories about crime in Florida, and stuffs his dad’s .22 pistol into his jacket.
Here’s the other player in this fantasy, George Zimmerman, a real person. George has been in a few scrapes himself. In 2005 he was charged with resisting arrest and battery on a police officer, a result of getting into an argument with a cop at a party and pushing him. The charges were later dropped as George agreed to go into an alcohol rehabilitation program. This is probably a good time to point out that George’s father worked in law enforcement. A few years later his ex-fiancee requested a restraining order against George for domestic violence. She said that George was trolling her neighborhood. One night he came to her apartment. She asked him to leave. George insisted that he take some of his things first. They were yelling at each other. Her dog bit him. George claimed he was the victim and countersued her. The judge told them to stay away from each other.
George especially liked his role as an unofficial* neighborhood watch person in his gated community in Sanford, the Retreat at Twin Lakes. George was the kind of guy who wanted everything to be in order, in fact he had made numerous calls to the police dispatcher over seemingly trivial things like trash out of place, or people walking through the neighborhood that comported themselves in what he thought was a suspicious manner. Sometimes George went out of his way to help people in the neighborhood, but he also antagonized some residents who had filed complaints with the homeowner’s association and the Sanford police about his aggressive behavior. At an emergency meeting of the association one resident was escorted out after loudly asserting that he had made numerous calls to the Sanford police about Zimmerman, who had previously approached him and and at one point came to his house. George was the kind of guy who wanted order in his environment.
The night of the NBA All Star game George is driving in his car and spots Travis near the north entrance. Travis sees him – they make eye contact. There’s something about this kid that George doesn’t like, he looks like he’s up to something. George parks in front of the clubhouse and calls the police, tells the dispatcher that this kid with the baseball cap on backwards looks real suspicous. As Travis continues along the street George moves his car several times to keep him in sight. By now Travis is acutely aware that this strange guy is following him. Where the street curves to the right there’s a sidewalk that cuts across to the next street over. This sidewalk connects to a sidewalk that runs down the middle of the block, between and behind the two rows of houses that front each street. Travis decides to get to his father’s house on this sidewalk, which goes right behind his dad’s house, away from the street and away from this guy in the car.
George says he’s lost sight of the kid and is going to get out and follow him on foot. The dispatcher tells him he doesn’t need to do that, the police are on the way. George says he doesn’t have an address that he can give them, in a small neighborhood that he patrols regularly with only a few streets, so he’ll have to get out and find an address so they know where to find him. George walks over to the sidewalk between the rows of houses. He’s got his 9mm handgun with him, loaded. At some point the two men’s paths cross. Travis sees this guy is not a cop, and says “Why are you following me?” He’s not a big kid but he’s wiry and knows how to take care of himself. Then he sees the gun in George’s hand as he walks toward Travis. Travis pulls his own gun out of his jacket and squeezes off a single shot that hits George in the heart. George collapses and falls to the ground.
Travis is charged with manslaughter. In the trial he argues that under Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws he has a right to defend himself from what he perceives as a deadly threat. Under this law Travis was "justified in using deadly force if he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself." Travis "was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force.” The jury agrees, Travis is not convicted. His gun is returned to him.
Of course we know that scenario never happened but a similar scenario did. In the reality the teenager’s name is Trayvon Martin, and in the real outcome Martin was shot dead by George Zimmerman. In the real trial neither George’s past history of stalking his girlfriend, hitting a cop, nor his heavyhanded tactics as neighborhood watch volunteer were allowed into the trial. George claimed that he was merely defending himself the night he shot Trayvon Martin and Martin was the aggressor. The defense pointed out that in Florida it is not against the law to follow someone. The jury did not convict. In both the real case and the hypothetical case one of the two people ended up dead, and the jury did not convict the shooter. A plausible outcome in either case.
So what is the difference? Why can Travis claim self-defense in one scenario while George can claim self-defense in the real case? One reason is that under Florida’s law the shooter is almost always right. It’s his word against a dead man’s. Under this law the burden of proof is on the state, in other words the state has to prove that the shooter did NOT act in self-defense. That’s a high bar, and in most cases the state considers it hopeless and doesn’t press charges.
The stand your ground law seems like a very bad law, a law that encourages two people having an argument to simply go for their guns to settle it with the winner, the one still alive, getting off Scot free. But it has one rule that, if applied, makes the law a little more reasonable, the initial aggressor rule. This rule states that if one person initiates a confrontation that results in another persons injury then he cannot claim a stand your ground defense. In the trial of George Zimmerman the judge denied the state’s request to instruct the jury on that part of the law. Without the knowledge of the initial aggressor rule, the entire confrontation lost the context of George watching and following Trayvon. The meeting between the two men was framed as something of a chance encounter, existing in its own independent universe, not something that was the culmination of Mr. Zimmerman’s actions. A conviction would never happen.
What actually did happen in the last minute of Mr. Martin’s life? We’ll never know, we have only Mr. Zimmerman’s version of the events to go on. I would argue that the chain of events leading to this boy’s death began long before their meeting that night. George was an accident waiting to happen, a cop wannabe who played out his cop fantasies as neighborhood watch guy. He’s got a police scanner in his vehicle, thinks he’s a real-life criminal investigator, a real crusader for righteousness . With his history he should not have been an armed neighborhood watch guy, but he was. He sees everybody not like him as a criminal.
When George Zimmerman got out of his car that fateful night, after being told not to, he should have lost any right to claim self-defense. When he got out of his car to pursue Mr. Martin, he assumed the role of a police officer, a role for which he did not have the training, the capability, the psychological fitness, the experience, and most of all, the authority to assume. He literally took the law into his own hands. Mr. Zimmerman had no more business pursuing that kid on foot than someone who took a course in first aid has to perform an emergency appendectomy after being told that the ambulance is on the way. And yet George played cop, and that kid wound up dead.
Suppose the hypothetical Travis had left the house without a gun, and he met the same fate at Zimmerman’s hands as did Trayvon. It shouldn’t make any difference whether Travis is a white kid from the Missouri ozarks or Trayvon is a black kid from Miami Gardens. When you look at this from the 10,000 foot level it’s clear that Mr. Zimmerman began the chain of events that led to this boy's death. You can chalk Zimmerman's reasons up to bad judgement, delusional thinking, or a hateful agenda, but whatever his reasons the act constitutes manslaughter. Mr. Zimmerman killed someone and got away with it.
What’s really disheartening is the reaction of some of the so-called pundits on Fox News. It’s not enough to argue the case for George Zimmerman’s innocence, Geraldo Rivera and others make the assertion that Trayvon Martin had it coming because of the way he looked, he was wearing a hoodie, or because he smoked pot or had been suspended from school. He was unarmed, carrying Skittles and iced tea back from the store, but according to them Trayvon had it coming. What could be more divisive than what these people are saying?
*George claimed to be a neighborhood watch captain but the group had never gotten recognition from the USAonWatch-Neighborhood Watch organization. The National Sheriffs Organization, its parent, issued this statement after the killing: “The alleged action of a ‘self-appointed neighborhood watchman’ last month in Sanford, FL significantly contradicts the principles of the Neighborhood Watch Program.” A spokesman for Miami-Dade Citizens Crime Watch said “In no program that I have ever heard of does someone patrol with a gun in their pocket. Every city and municipality has their own policies. Here in Miami-Dade we train people only to be the eyes and ears of their communities. Not to follow and most definitely not to carry a weapon.”