Zimmerman's Claim, and a Growing Trend

Trayvon Martin's shooter is not the only one to invoke self-defense under a "Stand your ground" law.

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Wondering why George Zimmerman hasn't been arrested yet in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin? The darned law's the thing. A Sanford, Fla., police department with more backbone could have interpreted it in such a way that an over-eager, trigger-happy neighborhood-watch volunteer would have been arrested by now for the fatal shooting of the 17-year-old more than a month ago.

But there's that "Stand your ground" law enacted by Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature in 2005, even over objections by the law enforcement community that its expansive notion of "self-defense" would be a burden to them. Other opponents of the law focused on the inherent danger to public safety if just about anybody in a public confrontation could use deadly force and claim self-defense because they felt threatened. The law aimed to protect Florida's well-armed citizenry in public places (as opposed to the home) by removing the requirement to retreat from what is perceived as a threatening situation.

According to a Tampa Bay Times editorial, "Since the law went into effect, reports of justifiable homicides have tripled, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. It has been used to absolve violence resulting from road rage, barroom arguments and even a gang gunfight. In 2008, two gangs in Tallahassee got into a shootout where a 15-year-old boy was killed. The charges were dismissed by a judge citing the 'stand your ground' law."

On Shaky Ground?

Zimmerman, the now-infamous neighborhood-watch volunteer, may have been hiding behind Florida's law to avoid arrest and shield himself from any civil lawsuits. But he might be flushed out from that hiding place now that the FBI, U.S. Justice Department and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement have stepped in to investigate the case. The state attorney for the area plans to convene a grand jury.

Zimmerman's own 911 call about seeing what for him was a "suspicious" black male and the fact that he got out of his vehicle to pursue Martin on foot against the advice of the dispatcher may prove his undoing. So, too, might the account of Martin's friend with whom he was involved in a cell phone conversation after leaving a convenience store with a bag of candy and a can of iced tea. She said Martin told her he was being followed by a strange man. Other witnesses have come forward, including some who heard calls of "Help!" before the gun blast.

"This is not a 'Stand your ground' case," asserts Ethan Andrew Way, a Tallahassee, Fla., criminal defense lawyer and leader in the state bar association. He is not involved in the case.

When the Situation Is Reversed

The Sanford police reaction was opposite to that of officers in Valrico, Fla. They arrested Trevor Dooley, who is black, after he fatally shot a white neighbor who was defending the right of kids to skateboard on part of a public basketball court. Dooley's invocation of "Stand your ground" was just one factor considered among what witnesses said. A pre-trial hearing is now under way before a judge, who will decide whether Dooley is off the hook because of the self-defense law or whether a trial can go forward with a jury considering witness testimony, among other things.

It is worth noting that the Martin slaying features something absent from the Dooley case: the argument, based in part on remarks made during Zimmerman's 911 call, that he targeted Martin because of his race -- because he was a black male.