Many of you are following the murder trial of George Zimmerman in a Florida courtroom. He is accused of shooting and killing Trayvon Martin during a scuffle in a residential area. Martin was unarmed and Zimmerman was carrying a pistol. At first, it appeared to be an open-and-shut case of murder.
The news media has covered this story in great detail and I won’t repeat the many things they’ve discussed. Let’s focus, instead, on what self defense really means.
The concept of self defense is as old as any law on the books. It makes sense that this should be the case since we all have an internal, instinctive feeling that we should be able to defend ourselves and our families and homes from aggression. In the law, it means that even if you kill someone else, if you were acting in self defense, you may be found not guilty. It doesn’t mean the jury would decide you didn’t kill someone; it means that you’d be excused from liability.
But the self defense statutes are more complicated than what we commonly think of them.
Most self defense laws state that force can be used to protect yourself but only if you feel that your death is imminent. Even then, you have to use force only to the degree that a reasonable person would use to stop the aggression. What does that mean? If someone comes at me with a knife unless I feel he will actually stab and kill me with it, I can’t rely on self defense to excuse me if I shoot him to death. If the aggressor is using fists, can I respond with a gun? That’s the question the jury will decide in Florida. Did Zimmerman feel that he was in imminent threat of death that would allow the use of a gun to protect himself?
There is also the duty to retreat in most self defense statutes which states the defendant has a duty to try and get away before killing the aggressor. If you are cornered and unable to escape, self defense may be the only choice you have and if you feel your own death is imminent, you are justified in using force to repel the aggressor.
In my experience as a criminal lawyer and having tried dozens of trials, I know that juries take the law of self defense seriously. It’s one of the strongest defenses available to us as citizens. But I also caution you to not depend on the media to give you the full story about what’s going on in the case of George Zimmerman. It’s not that the media mislead us, it’s just that they are confined to certain amount of time and space in their stories and so, leave out many critical details that the jury will hear about self defense.
For instance, early in the case, the media reported that a witness for the prosecution, Ms. Rachel Jentel, had very damaging testimony against Mr. Zimmerman. It made him look guilty. When she actually testified, it revealed that the police had questioned her in the presence of Trayvon’s mother!! As a former prosecutor, I can tell you this is a huge mistake on the part of the police since it obviously leads the witness to slant their story toward the victim. Ms. Jentel should have been interviewed by herself in a neutral setting.
My point is that the evidence the jury hears is often much different than the news information we hear through the media. Let’s wait and see what the jury decides.