Mario Tama/Getty Images

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.

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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.

A Growing Trend

Ladd Everitt, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, says of the Martin case: "In previous years this would be a straight case of murder." But in 2005 state law changed with the advent of "Stand your ground," though as Way, the Tallahassee lawyer, notes: "It hasn't been the wild, wild West in Florida." He thinks there may have been only 10 to 20 true "Stand your ground" cases since the law took effect.

Advertisement

Florida is at the forefront of more than 20 states with such National Rifle Association-backed laws. In a 2009 report issued by the San Francisco-based Legal Community Against Violence, already there were alarms sounding about the danger to public safety and the hamstringing of police and prosecutors. From the report (pdf):

In recent years, the gun lobby has promoted the enactment of so-called "shoot first" laws, dangerous alterations to traditional self-defense principles that generally: 1) presume that a person's actions in using deadly force in self-defense were reasonable; 2) expand the use of deadly force in self-defense to locations outside the home; 3) broaden the situations in which a person can respond with deadly force to those where no imminent danger exists; and 4) immunize persons acting in self-defense from criminal prosecution and civil liability if they injure or kill anyone, including innocent bystanders, while acting in self-defense. Thus far, more than 20 states have heeded the gun lobby's call and adopted "shoot first" laws, also referred to as "no retreat," "stand your ground," or "make my day" laws.

The Tampa Bay Times has taken a strong editorial position against the law, which it labels a "menace."

Advertisement

The St. Petersburg Times has reported that the number of cases in which justifiable homicide is used as a defense has soared. By 2010, there were 100 such cases, up from 30 when "Stand your ground" became law; the defense was used in 93 cases and in most of those the defense was successful — something that might work in favor of Trevor Dooley.

Meanwhile, with the Sanford police chief having stepped down for now, there may be some movement at the local level on the investigation into Martin's death. Also, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement might be able to make an arrest. And then there are the eyes of the feds.

The wheels of justice may finally begin to turn for Trayvon Martin.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a frequent contributor to The Root.