Tuesday, July 16, 2013
I know many legal experts, including Colin (in the post immediately below), are downplaying the role that Florida’s Stand Your Ground (SYG) law played in the George Zimmerman case. And it is true that the defense narrative of the case fit into a standard definition of self-defense law. But I think SYG played a significant role in the case for a couple of reasons. Here is the main one:
Juries rarely completely accept a criminal defendant’s self-interested account of his actions, and I would be surprised if they did so in this case. But even discounting Zimmerman’s account, there remained a great deal of uncertainty as to how the tragic altercation began and how it unfolded. That is where the SYG instruction that the jury received comes in. The jury instructions, available online, include slightly more than a page on self defense and the core of that instruction is the SYG law: “If George Zimmerman . . . was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force . . . .” This instruction, coming not from the parties but from the judge, emphatically carves out a broad swath of deadly conduct that is permitted under Florida law. Jurors who believed that the truth of what happened that night lay somewhere within that broad swath (or, more precisely, that the prosecution’s evidence did not disprove the possibility that it did) were required to acquit, even if they believed Zimmerman to be more culpable than his statement to police would suggest.
Interestingly, the jurors did not get all of the SYG provisions in the instruction quoted above. As I mentioned in an earlier piece I wrote on SYG when this case first broke, a person cannot invoke the SYG law if he "initially provokes the use of force against himself." Alafair Burke, a law professor at Hofstra has an insightful article in the Huffington Post (available here) that describes how the Zimmerman prosecutors lost a lengthy after-hours battle to get that part of the SYG law included in the jury instructions. Prof. Burke concludes: “Losing the initial aggressor instruction may have been the moment the state lost its case.”