Hot Topic: Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman and Stand Your Ground

Hot Topic: Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman and Stand Your Ground

The shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman has ignited a national debate over Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Police in Sanford, Fla., said the law barred them from pressing charges against Zimmerman, who claimed he acted in self defense when he killed Martin with a single shot. Stand Your Ground permits a person to use force without any obligation to retreat if there is a belief that a threat exists. David Dante Troutt, a professor at Rutgers School of Law-Newark who has written about race, law and society, says the law has radically altered the self- defense standard and needs to be repealed.

David Dante Troutt

David Dante Troutt

Rutgers Today:

What has the shooting death of Trayvon Martin revealed about the Stand Your Ground law?

Troutt: To me the Martin shooting reveals just how deeply misguided this law is, and how radically dangerous it is ­– not only to its victims like Martin, but to the whole notion of a civil society. It incentivizes vigilantism when you have rules that can be interpreted to allow individuals to take the law into their own hands with the force of a firearm.

Rutgers Today: Why did Stand Your Ground deter the Sanford, Fla., police from filing charges against Zimmerman?

Troutt: They did not appear to find grounds for charging manslaughter based on their understanding of the statute. But that may be because the statute has not been adequately explained by the Florida courts, whose job it is to interpret legislation. In the absence of a clear interpretation, police and prosecutors are taking the path of least resistance. A case that appears to be a loser because of the law is less likely to be prosecuted, and I think the Martin case is a good example of that. 

That is why it is so important for George Zimmerman to be
arrested and prosecuted. We know what his defense will be: He was acting in
accordance with the Stand Your Ground Law. But that has to be weighed at trial.
If a judge agrees with him, we get to read the judge's reasoning. And if the
judge disagrees, the defense can appeal and the appellate court can review the
lower court’s reasoning and we get an even fuller explanation. That is why
justice in this case requires that the shooter, George Zimmerman, be prosecuted
so we can get clarification. As a matter of traditional self-defense principles
and common sense, nobody in George Zimmerman’s position would seem to be
entitled to the benefit of this law.

Rutgers Today: What are your thoughts on how the law was applied in this case?

Troutt: There are three basic problems with how this law was interpreted and used by the police and prosecutors. First, It used a subjective rather than an objective standard. A subjective measure is: Did this shooter genuinely and honestly perceive that he needed to use force to protect himself? The problem with that subjective standard is the assertion of the shooter carries too much weight. The shooter may be blinded by prejudice, by hypersensitivity, by very poor judgment or any number of subjective factors that may have compelled his use of force. If we could all create the standard for the reasonableness of our own actions, we could almost never be challenged in anything we do.

Secondly, It ignored the fact that George Zimmerman was clearly the aggressor. Finally, it also ignored the requirement of proportionality. If someone comes up and slaps you in the face, you can’t stab them in the heart. In this case George Zimmerman says that Trayvon Martin saw his gun and therefore was going to grab his gun and shoot him. That is what justified him using his gun first. But that is a patently ridiculous argument when it comes to another human being’s life. There is no evidence that Trayvon Martin would have decided to shoot a man that day when he went out to get Skittles.

Rutgers Today: What do you think the ramifications of the Trayvon Martin shooting should be in regards to the Stand Your Ground law?

Troutt: The very clear lesson that comes out of this terrible episode is that this law is a categorical mistake and has to be repealed wherever it exists. The potential for more Trayvon Martins, particularly in a society that is as fearful, as angry, and as suspicious of young black men as ours, is too likely. This is one more factor that cheapens the lives and the potential of young men of color, not to mention the many bystanders, and the loss of prosecutions against criminals that come about as a result of this law. This is a signature moment in the evaluation of this law and the conclusion seems awfully clear: It’s got to go. It’s not a good law.



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