Monday, July 15, 2013

Stand Your Ground and the Zimmerman acquittal

One of the contentious questions in the George Zimmerman acquittal is what role Florida's now-notorious Stand Your Ground law played in it. As I said in an earlier post, Stand Your Ground was part of the jury instructions and may have influenced the jury decision in other ways. The local prosecutor's delay of over a month in pressing charges may have been influenced by the Stand Your Ground law. And that likely contributed to the trial prosecutor's difficulty in getting past reasonable doubt.

In other words, the defense did not base its case specifically on the Stand Your Ground law. But with those jury instructions, we can't saw it had nothing to do with the verdict. So "Florida law" in the form of Stand Your Ground may well be significantly to blame here. And the ways in which the Stand Your Ground law shapes how jurors think about such cases in general probably has an effect.

Kris Hundley of the Tampa Bay Times in Despite backlash, 'stand your ground' laws did not apply to Zimmerman case 07/15/2013 tries with mixed success to explain Stand Your Ground's role in the trial. The defense did not base its case around a specific Stand Your Ground defense but on a basic self-defense theory.

The headline is misleading, because the Stand Your Ground law was part of the jury instructions. You can't say it "did not apply." Obviously the judge thought it applied enough to include it in the jury instructions.

There's also politics in trying to dissociate Stand Your Ground from the Zimmerman verdict. This trial threw a national spotlight on the Stand Your Ground laws:

Though there was some pressure to revamp the stand your ground laws when the Zimmerman case first became public, that pressure quickly dissipated. A task force created by Gov. Rick Scott to review the law included many of the statute's supporters and resulted in few meaningful proposals. Even those, however, failed to get a hearing during the last legislative session, as lawmakers cited the ongoing legal case against Zimmerman and more pressing issues as an excuse for shelving any discussion of the subject.

State Sen. Chris Smith, a Democrat from Fort Lauderdale, hopes the public outcry over the Zimmerman verdict will change that, especially if jurors say it had an impact on their deliberation.

"That statute was poorly written; any reasonable society would want it changed," Smith said. "People are looking for action steps, they're shocked by the outcome. Now we need to push the Legislature to at least have this debate." [my emphasis]
Notice how one of the legislative leaders who was responsible for passing the Stand Your Ground law is eager to distance it from the outcome of the Zimmerman trial:

Those comments are no surprise to Sen. Tom Lee, Republican from Brandon, who was president of the Florida Senate when stand your ground legislation was passed in 2005.

"I have yet to talk to anyone who believes the stand your ground provisions were remotely relevant to this case," said Lee, who believes the law is working the way it was intended. "For me, this case centered on your right to defend yourself."

Lee said that's why the Sanford police did not immediately arrest Zimmerman after he acknowledged killing Martin in February 2012 and why the prosecutor initially decided not to prosecute.
Hundley's article seems a bit over-eager to make the same point. The first paragraph refers to Juror B37, who is now talking to the press and even has a book deal. As Dahlia Lithwick explains in Why Did They Let Her on the Zimmerman Jury? Slate 07/15/2013, B37 might not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier. But she was one of the six jurors. And if there was some clear demarcation in the jury's minds between traditional self-defense and Stand Your Ground, it didn't seem to have penetrated very deeply into B37's consciousness. Hundley:

A juror in the George Zimmerman trial broke her silence Monday night on national TV to say Florida's "stand your ground" laws played a role in the decision to acquit the Sanford neighborhood watch captain.

But the woman, identified only as Juror B37, also said she had "no doubt" Zimmerman feared for his life in the final moments of his struggle with Trayvon Martin, and that was the definitive factor in the verdict. The juror spoke to CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 on Monday. [my emphasis]
But the article follows directly with, "That matched the assessment of legal experts who earlier Monday were describing the verdict on Saturday as the result of successful, garden-variety self-defense arguments that could sway a jury in any state." Yeah, those legal experts might be saying that the "garden-variety self-defense arguments" were good enough. But the juror herself is saying that Stand Your Ground - which again was included in the jury instructions - "played a role in the decision to acquit" Zimmerman.

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