Even though the prosecution in the George Zimmerman case said during the trial that Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law had nothing to do with the case, many commentators continue to insist it formed the foundation of Zimmerman’s defense and his subsequent acquittal.
“‘Stand Your Ground’ Did Indeed Play a Role in the Zimmerman Trial,” Mother Jones claimed shortly after Zimmerman was acquitted.
“Why Stand Your Ground Is Central To George Zimmerman’s Case After All,” ThinkProgress declared.
Media Matters for America, a liberal outfit funded in part by George Soros, also asserted that Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law was key to Zimmerman’s defense.
“Florida’s self-defense laws set the framework by which Zimmerman was tried, setting the standard by which the jury would have to determine if Martin’s death resulted from the justifiable use of force,” Media Matters asserted. “Indeed, the jury instructions in the case specifically mention [Stand Your Ground].”
WHAT DID THE JURY INSTRUCTIONS ACTUALLY SAY?
The single reference in the 27 pages of jury instructions to “Stand Your Ground” forms the basis of nearly all claims that the law was key to Zimmerman’s acquittal. The relevant language from the jury instructions is quoted below:
If George Zimmerman 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, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
To understand why the assertion that this single reference in the 27-page jury instructions to “Stand Your Ground” had no real bearing on Zimmerman’s acquittal, it is important to carefully read the entire paragraph, not just the reference to the controversial law. The jury instructions required at least three things to be simultaneously true before the “Stand Your Ground” language became applicable: 1) George Zimmerman could not have been engaged in an unlawful activity, 2) George Zimmerman had to be attacked, and 3) George Zimmerman had to reasonably believe he had no alternative to using deadly force.
Given the facts of the Zimmerman case and both the defense’s and prosecution’s theories of what happened the night Trayvon Martin was killed, the first two requirements have the greatest bearing on whether those jury instructions would have been applicable.
APPLICATION TO THE DEFENSE’S THEORY OF THE CASE
Remember that the entire case was based on two mutually exclusive theories of what happened. The prosecution claimed that Zimmerman profiled and stalked Martin, sought and deliberately provoked a deadly confrontation with Martin, and eventually shot him in cold blood. The defense claimed that Martin ambushed Zimmerman, pinned Zimmerman to the ground, preventing any sort of retreat, repeatedly punched Zimmerman’s face, and slammed Zimmerman’s head into the concrete until Zimmerman fatally shot Martin, ending the confrontation.
Under the defense’s theory of the case, Zimmerman simply had no safe avenue of retreat once the deadly altercation had been initiated by Martin. Zimmerman could not get away once Martin pinned him to the ground. Because Zimmerman had no ability to retreat, he had no duty to retreat. Therefore, the jury instructions referring to “Stand Your Ground,” namely the law’s removal of a general duty to retreat, were simply irrelevant if a juror believed Zimmerman was attacked and had no choice but to shoot Martin. If a juror believed Zimmerman’s claim that he had been pinned to the ground and pummeled, and therefore had no ability to retreat, then removal in the jury instructions of the duty to retreat was not applicable.
In short, if jurors believed Zimmerman’s theory of the case, they did not need the “Stand Your Ground” instructions to acquit. The numerous instructions describing “justifiable homicide,” the vast majority of which made no mention to “Stand Your Ground” or the removal of a duty to retreat, were more than sufficient to require a verdict of “not guilty.”
APPLICATION TO THE PROSECUTION’S THEORY OF THE CASE
The same principle also applies to the prosecution’s theory of the case. In order for the specific jury instructions mentioning “Stand Your Ground” to apply to Zimmerman, jurors would need to believe that he was not engaged in unlawful activity and that he had been attacked.
A key pillar of the prosecution’s case, though, was the assertion that Zimmerman profiled, stalked, provoked, and attacked Trayvon Martin, and that Zimmerman had been responsible for initiating the deadly confrontation. If the prosecution’s theory of the case were true, then Zimmerman would have been clearly guilty of assault, if not aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. In short, the prosecution’s theory of the case immediately nukes the “Stand Your Ground” defense by asserting that Zimmerman was engaged in illegal activity long before he felt the need to pull the trigger.
If a juror believed the prosecution’s theory of the case and rejected the defense’s theory of the case, then the jury instructions required a “guilty” verdict with or without the language referring to “Stand Your Ground.”
Because of the facts of the Zimmerman case and the differing theories of what happened leading up to Trayvon Martin’s death, neither the “Stand Your Ground” law nor the “Stand Your Ground” jury instructions had any bearing on the case. Even without the specific language in the jury instructions, a juror who believed the prosecution’s theory of the case would have been required to convict Zimmerman of at least manslaughter, if not second-degree murder. And even without that language, a juror who believed the defense’s theory of self-defense would have been required by the jury instructions to acquit.
For these reasons, even the prosecution said during the trial that “Stand Your Ground” had nothing to do with the case. During his closing argument, prosecutor John Guy explicitly told the jury, “This case is not about standing your ground.”
STAND YOUR GROUND COULD HAVE PROTECTED TRAYVON MARTIN IF HE KILLED ZIMMERMAN
Ironically, if the defense’s theory of the case were true — that Zimmerman provoked Martin and Martin was defending himself against Zimmerman’s attack — Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law might have been the very thing keeping Martin out of jail if he had killed Zimmerman during the encounter. Rachel Jenteal, one of Martin’s friends and a key witness for the prosecution’s case, told Piers Morgan during a CNN interview last week that Martin thought Zimmerman was a gay rapist who was stalking Martin. According to Jenteal, Martin did not want to go home for fear that Zimmerman might follow Martin and endanger his little brother.
“And people need to understand, he didn’t want that creepy ass cracker going to his father or girlfriend’s house to go get – mind you, his little brother was there,” Jenteal said. “You know – now mind you, I told you – I told Trayvon it might have been a rapist.”
If that had been the case, and Martin indeed chose not to go home in order to protect his little brother, the “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida would have protected him by not requiring him to retreat in that situation. Rather than protecting the actions of Zimmerman, who the prosecution alleged was the aggressor, the state’s self-defense law would have provided protection for Martin if he had killed Zimmerman and could make a credible case that he was acting in self-defense and no choice but to use deadly force.
Despite all the hand-wringing about Florida’s self-defense laws, jurors eventually acquitted Zimmerman for two very simple reasons, none of which had anything to do with the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law: Zimmerman had clearly been beaten, making his claim of self-defense credible, and there were no independent eyewitness to contradict his account of what happened. As a result, the prosecution was unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman had not been engaged in self-defense. This does not mean that Zimmerman was “innocent,” or even that his version of events is what actually transpired that night — the verdict merely reflected that the prosecution had failed to meet the burden of proof in its case.
As unsatisfying as the verdict may be for many people, it nonetheless had nothing to do with Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law or the reference to it within the the jury’s instructions.