Understanding Your Ground

Lawrence O’Donnell, Ed Schultz, Rachel Maddow, et hoc genus omne are desperately trying to have it both ways.

On the one hand, they want it to be the case that George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin was unlawful, so that they can blame the authorities for not arresting and prosecuting him.

Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman

Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman

On the other hand, they want it to be the case that the shooting was lawful, so that they can blame the law (specifically, Florida’s stand-your-ground law) for allowing the shooting.

So the establishment lapdogs at MSNBC are inconsistent; no surprise there. But which way should they resolve this inconsistency?

Well, here’s the actual text of the stand-your-ground provision, which actually seems pretty reasonable to me:

A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

(Read the entire law here, including some not-so-nice bits, such as the 14th-Amendment-violating exception concerning self-defense against police officers.)

So unless Zimmerman a) was attacked by Martin, and b) had a reasonable belief that Martin posed a serious danger to him (two conditions that, from the evidence thus far available, do not appear to have been met – and certainly the critics clearly do not believe either condition was met), the stand-your-ground provision offers no defense of his actions.

Of course it is entirely possible that local Florida authorities have been misapplying this law, and indeed that they have been doing so with racist motivations. That wouldn’t exactly shock me. But in that case, the problem lies not with the stand-your-ground law but with the authorities; and the solution is to hold them accountable by depriving them of their monopoly.

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18 Responses to Understanding Your Ground

  1. decentralist March 23, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

    One important piece of information is missing in most reports. Zimmerman had a bloody nose. So he was attacked at the least. The next question I have is relative size/strength of each of them.

    Also, for Zimmerman to get that bloody nose it also makes it likely he didn’t draw the weapon before getting that bloody nose, so it wasn’t a case of extreme quick draw just to have an easy kill. If Zimmerman was bigger/stronger, and the bloody nose was just a lucky shot, then the shooting likely an anger reaction.

    But if Martin was the stronger or more physically fit, then I might presume a justified shooting if Martin was not done with the beating.

  2. John T. Kennedy March 23, 2012 at 3:21 pm #


    If you listen to the tapes it seems clear that Zimmerman followed and engaged Martin for suspicions based on no good evidence. By Zimmerman’s own live account Martin walked by Zimmerman and walked away. Martin eventually ran when he realized Zimmerman was following him. There is now way any of this could be construed as an attack by Martin on Zimmerman.

  3. decentralist March 23, 2012 at 3:58 pm #

    I’m not sure we know how many minutes were between the end of the 911 tape and the direct altercation leading to the shooting. How did Zimmerman get beaten on the back of the head too? One witness implies the shooting happened when Zimmerman was being beaten while lying on the ground with Martin over him. The other witness, Mary Cutcher’s story sounds conflicting at first, but not necessarily if it is after the shot was fired. That hasn’t been clarified.

    That Martin physically beat Zimmerman to the point of bloodiness on both his nose and back of the head is not being disputed by anybody yet.

    • Roderick March 23, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

      That Martin physically beat Zimmerman to the point of bloodiness on both his nose and back of the head is not being disputed by anybody yet.

      Actually that’s being disputed pretty vociferously.

      But the point of my post was not to take a stand on what actually happened, which I don’t claim to know, but simply to point out that if, as the MSNBC crowd insist, the shooting was unprovoked, then they can’t legitimately blame a law that only protects provoked shootings.

      • Will March 27, 2012 at 8:46 am #

        It is as possible, as you hint at in your last sentence, that the killing SHOULD be considered unlawful even according to the “stand your ground” law, but that the existence of that law still deterred the cops from arresting the killer.

  4. John T. Kennedy March 23, 2012 at 4:41 pm #

    Zimmerman was clearly seeking to engage, Martin to evade, out of fear. There is no reason to blame the engagement on Martin.

    “Zimmerman said he had stepped out of his truck to check the name of the street he was on when Trayvon attacked him from behind as he walked back to his truck, police said.”


    According to the police, Zimmerman gave this story which directly contradicts the recording of his own 911 call and the report of the witness who was talking on the phone with Martin. Zimmerman knew exactly where he was and left his car to follow Martin. The witness heard the initiation of the engagement and it was not as police said Zimmerman described.

    Zimmerman is a 28 year old man who had 110 pounds on the 17 year old Martin. Zimmerman’s story has no credibility – it doesn’t make a bit of sense that Martin would attack him, certainly not from behind if Zimmerman was leaving the scene. Zimmerman should be tried for manslaughter.

    • Brandon March 23, 2012 at 7:15 pm #

      Sounds more like second degree murder to me. Unpremeditated murder.

  5. decentralist March 23, 2012 at 5:03 pm #

    Actually that’s being disputed pretty vociferously.

    Let me know if you find backup for that. There is no doubt that this is a notoriously crooked and racist police department. In the long run, that may be the worst part of a Zimmerman defense, because this case becomes the pretext in a city already at the flash point, regardless of wherever the facts may lie in this particular case. So any evidence collected by the PD becomes suspect even if it was legit.

  6. crossofcrimson March 23, 2012 at 6:26 pm #

    This might be of interest – a supposed copy of the original police report(s):


  7. decentralist March 23, 2012 at 7:22 pm #

    Not that I generally trust police reports, but that agrees with what I said. Also agrees with what witness identified as first name only “John” saw a man in red on the ground being beaten. This also says Zimmerman was wearing red. Also, the 911 call was

    I think there still isn’t much certainty without a complete view of all witness statements, and that this case.

    Even better is the live 911 tapes. Especially 11:30-12:20 where a witness caller says “the guy on top has a white t-shirt”, so certainly not Zimmerman, this female witness agrees with the male “John” witness.


  8. decentralist March 23, 2012 at 8:05 pm #

    And 16:55-17:15 also agrees.

    Note I don’t take sides and the panicked lady at 20:15-30:00+ hears Zimmerman tell the police that he shot Martin. She heard them wrestling and presumes it was Martin yelling for help.

    33:30-34:15 says it was the person laying on the ground was yelling for help, and all statements so far agree that it was Zimmerman on the ground. I’ve read/heard nothing that states Martin was on the ground during the wrestling/beating.

  9. David Chesler March 23, 2012 at 10:27 pm #

    So I can go around picking fights, and if the other guy fights back, I can shoot him and say “I was just standing my ground, you can’t arrest me?”

  10. Mike March 24, 2012 at 12:38 pm #

    Zimmerman’s lawyer says he lost sight of Martin and was returning to his truck when Martin jumped him. He says Zimmerman didn’t just suffer a “bloody nose” but his nose was broken.

    He also says that the “stand your ground” law has no bearing on this case at all because Zimmerman’s actions were legal under traditional self defense laws.

    Absent any eyewitness who can dispute those claims, it seems like it would be difficult to prosecute Zimmerman.

  11. Anon73 March 24, 2012 at 5:10 pm #

    Another point about the Stand Your Ground law was that one of the pundits claimed it’s allowed absurdities such as two drug dealers having a shootout and each citing the law as providing justification for shooting! Obviously since the law’s text starts out by only covering lawful activity this is another non sequitur. There’s definitely a lot of angst about this SYG law among the anti-gun lobby, although I’m not even sure the law mentions guns specifically.

  12. Hume March 28, 2012 at 8:23 am #

    Robert Paul Wolff:

    “The pundit commentary has been ignorant and historically blind. This is not a hate crime. It is a lynching, legally authorized by the laws of Florida, signed into law by that supposedly sound, sensible mature Republican, Jeb Bush.

    I do not know how long it will be before the Black community concludes that it must take its defense into its own hands. And they will be right.”


    • Roderick March 28, 2012 at 3:52 pm #

      He misspelled Trayvon’s name.

      • Hume March 28, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

        Haha, nice catch. Just to be clear, I was not endorsing Wolff’s views, just bringing them to your attention (there is also a long post from yesterday over at Volokh Consipiracy by Kopel). I agree with your assessment.

        Wolff (and Brian Leiter) often make claims in the style as the one linked to above (with anarcho/libertarian views their target). It would be nice to see someone within academia call them out on it.


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