Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Did "Stand Your Ground" Matter in the George Zimmerman Case?
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.”
Jeff: Good post. I should probably clarify that in my earlier post, I was referring to the immunity & presumption portions of Florida's SYG law, which did not apply, rather than the more general proposition that a defendant does not have a duty to retreat before using deadly force.
Posted by: Colin Miller | Jul 16, 2013 11:09:01 AM
Colin, I appreciate the clarification. There is a strain in the commentary on the case arguing that SYG was basically irrelevant, but I am cheered that it has not infiltrated this blog! I think what some commentators are missing is how often jurors stray from either side's narrative of the facts, something I was surprised to learn when talking to jurors after cases. I also think that the rhetorical aspect of the law ("meet force with force") is influential even apart from its direct legal effect.
Rick, I think I agree that the initial aggressor jury instruction would probably not have tilted the case all the way to conviction, but it certainly would have given the jurors who favored conviction (apparently the initial vote was split) a stronger legal leg to stand on, which could have changed the jury dynamic.
Posted by: Jeff Bellin | Jul 16, 2013 4:31:36 PM
Correct Jeff, but I think the problem with giving that instruction was that there was no evidence to support it. The jury had no way of knowing who was the "Provoker". That Zimmerman legally had a gun and was legally walking around probably would not justify the instruction. The judge refused to give the instruction because she thought she would be reversed if she did. The jury could not fill the gap with speculation, and be true to "proof beyond a reasonable doubt."
The sad part of all this is that neighborhood watch folks could be given some training, not wear guns , carry a large flashlight and wear a jacket identifying who they are - and follow a proceed with caution caution approach - plenty of commo to call for assistance.
I think that in the absence of witnesses (they come in handy) the jury had no choice but to bring in the verdict that they did.
Posted by: Rick Underwood | Jul 16, 2013 5:49:51 PM
Hi Colin, I was having a conversation about this exact point with a few colleagues and came across your blog. Took a few moments for me to realize that you and I went to law school together. Funny how small the world is sometimes. Glad to see you're doing well, and couldn't agree more with your post!
Posted by: Darren Creasy | Jul 19, 2013 2:45:30 PM
Thanks. Nice that someone looks at the jury instructions as given and what perhaps should have been given. Still, how was the jury to decide on an initial agreesor beong a reasonable doubt?
Posted by: Rick Underwood | Jul 16, 2013 10:19:04 AM