Friday, July 12, 2013

George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin: What Should the Result Be?

I’ve avoided writing about the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin. And I’ve managed to not watch any of the trial notwithstanding the seeming wall-to-wall coverage (though, I’ll acknowledge that I’ve seen some coverage to the extent it was included or discussed as part of a news program that I was watching or listening to). So now, as the case is almost ready to go to the jury … I’m still entirely not sure what to think.

I don’t want to write a treatise or exhaustive analysis of the issues; rather, I just want to take a quick (at least for me) look at what I see as the big picture and sort of walk through those issues in one of my thought experiments, with the hopes of reaching some kind of solution or resolution.

First, it appears that Martin did nothing wrong … at least until the beginning of the altercation between he and Zimmerman. He was walking in a place he had reason to be. So far as I’m aware, walking while black is not a crime, even in the South. Nor is wearing a hoodie in the rain. Or eating Skittles. Having been suspended from school or having previous experience (even recent experience) with marijuana may be a problem … but neither of those things were a problem that night.

So, just as it’s not a crime to walk while black, it’s also not a crime to walk while having done something wrong in the past. If that were the standard, I guess most of us would have to worry as we walked through neighborhoods, wouldn’t we? Walking while previously having disobeyed a traffic signal. Walking while having been yelled at by an employer. Walking while having been late filing taxes. Walking while having lied to a spouse. Pick your poison. But none of them justify being profiled or shot.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

Back to the discussion.

And it appears that Zimmerman was doing something wrong. Several things, actually. First, he was profiling a person based, apparently, on nothing more than his race (certainly he couldn’t have know that Martin had been suspended from school or had in the past used marijuana). Second, Zimmerman got out of his car and followed Martin even after being told not to do so by the police.

So, up until the moment that the altercation began, it appears that Martin was in the right and Zimmerman was in the wrong. It doesn’t really matter which, if either was a choir boy and which a bad dude. Maybe they were both good guys; maybe both were punks. But either way, in the moments leading up to the altercation, it looks like Martin had done nothing immediately wrong while Zimmerman had.

But that’s when things get complicated.

I don’t think that anyone has alleged that Zimmerman just shot Martin without some kind of physical altercation between the two. If that were the case, it would be an easy case. “You don’t belong here so I’m gonna shoot you” is rarely a viable defense and that doesn’t appear to be the case that the prosecution has made.

So let’s accept the notion that there was, indeed an altercation. How does that change things? Did Martin confront Zimmerman? Did Zimmerman confront Martin? Obviously, we’ve not heard Martin’s side of the story. But I’m not sure it really matters.

Let’s play it out both ways. First, let’s suppose that Martin got pissed about being followed and confronted Zimmerman. Maybe Martin even through the first punch. What was Zimmerman supposed to do? I guess, in a perfect world, the answer would be that he should have extricated himself from the situation. Run away. Maybe if he’d identified himself as the community watch or even apologized (“Gee, sorry, I thought you were a burglar…”). But it’s hard to fault a guy for trying, in the heat of the moment, to do what he thought he needed to do to defend himself. I guess we need to remember that this isn’t like a case of a bank robber confronted by an armed guard or civilian. In that case, the robber was committing a felony and has no right to defend himself. But even if what Zimmerman was doing was wrong or even racist, it doesn’t appear to have been illegal. There’s no law that says you can’t follow someone for racial reasons to be sure that they’re not a criminal. It may be stupid and wrong, but it’s not a crime. So if the situation turned on Zimmerman and retreat no longer seemed a viable option, was he just supposed to lay on the ground and allow Martin to beat him until Martin was bored? That doesn’t feel like the right answer. I don’t think that getting yourself into a bad situation means that you have to then surrender your right to try to keep yourself safe. To a point.

Or what if Zimmerman initiated the altercation? Does that really change things? If I start a fight with you at a bar because you looked at my wife crosswise, and then you start to kick my ass, must I just sit there and take it because I started the fight? Or am I, at some point, allowed to hit back? And if my only defense is my gun, am I prohibited from using it because I started the fight? Must I allow you to beat me to a bloody pulp? That doesn’t sound right, either.

So, I’m not really sure what we wanted Zimmerman to do, other than either not follow Martin in the first place or run away as the altercation or confrontation commenced. But once there was violence, no matter who started it, is our expectation that person who was in the wrong up to the commencement of the altercation lay down his defenses and accept his punishment? No. Probably not.

But that brings me back to the core problem. A teenage boy is dead. And not because he was committing a crime. He is dead because a fight broke out with someone who was doing something wrong (even if not illegal). Thus, it seems that even though Zimmerman should be allowed to “defend” himself in the fight, neither the fight nor the shooting needed to occur and, most importantly, both occurred because of Zimmerman’s conduct. So while it seems right that people be allowed to defend themselves, it seems wrong that they not be punished for causing situations that lead to the violence in the first place.

I’m not a criminal law attorney and I don’t play one on TV. I didn’t even stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. I don’t know whether criminal law has worked out these sorts of issues over the last few hundred years, whether here in Indiana or down in Florida (and I haven’t read many criminal cases since passing the bar or so many years ago). But, if the issues were simple, I doubt that there would be so much attention to the case. There may be answers to the queries that I’ve posed; if so I’m unaware of them (perhaps, thankfully so).

But I guess in the end, my thought is that though Zimmerman had a right to defend himself, he still must answer for what appears to be a situation of his own creation. He didn’t need to follow Martin. He didn’t need to become involved in an altercation. If he could have run or escaped or used words to defuse the situation, then he should have. But when he couldn’t, he used the only defense that he thought he had. OK. So Zimmerman didn’t allow himself to be beaten to a pulp. But that doesn’t mean that he isn’t ultimately responsible for the death of that teenager. Zimmerman’s actions: profiling, disobeying police instructions, following, and eventually pulling the trigger, were the events that led to Martin’s death. And for that series of actions, I think, Zimmerman must answer.

I don’t know what Florida law requires for second degree murder or manslaughter. But I do believe, based on the little hard evidence that I know, that Zimmerman is responsible for his actions and should be punished for acting in a way that led to the death of an unarmed teenage boy.

If you disagree, let me know. But please premise your response to either the law or what you think that the law should be. If you disagree because Martin was black … well, then, you have bigger problems.

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At Saturday, July 13, 2013 12:21:00 PM , Blogger Joe S said...

I feel smarter having read your post. Thanks!

At Monday, July 15, 2013 10:13:00 AM , Blogger MSWallack said...

Thanks, Joe. Unfortunately, I'm not surprised by the verdict. I think that proof that the incident wasn't self-defense was a difficult burden and the way that self-defense is constructed in states with stand your ground laws is often simply too much to overcome. I may try to write more about my post-verdict thoughts in the next week. Maybe.

But I do think that we have to keep up efforts to reduce the prevalence of guns (after all, if Zimmerman wasn't armed, Martin would still be alive) and to eliminate stand your ground laws.


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