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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Justice for Trayvon Martin...and George Zimmerman

By now, you've probably heard about as much of the Trayvon Martin case as you've heard of the Casey Anthony case.  I, like many others, reacted with anger and shock when I first heard about Trayvon Martin's death and the lack of an arrest.  A teenager from South Florida visiting his father in Sanford is shot and killed by a neighborhood watch patrolman who had called the police to report a suspicious person walking around the neighborhood complex.  The teenager was unarmed, carrying a bag of skittles and a beverage, and was sporting a hooded sweatshirt.  The neighboorhood watch patrolman was George Zimmerman, and he immediately claimed self defense as the reason he shot the unarmed teenager.  The police interviewed neighbors, interviewed Zimmerman, and chose to not arrest Zimmerman.  Oh, and the shooter is white, and the deceased is black.

My first instinct was to be angry: angry with George Zimmerman, angry with neighboors who did not intervene when there were audible cries for help, and angry with the police department for not making an arrest.  During my three years as an assistant public defender, I'd handled dozens of cases where my clients, who were often black and poor, had asserted self defense for their actions and had not been given the benefit of the doubt.  Instead, those clients were arrested by cops and told to "tell it to the judge".  My clients were charged by the State Attorney's Office in Orlando, and I often had to take their cases to trial and let a jury decide whether my clients were justified in their use of force.  I wondered: why should anyone else be treated differently from my clients?  Why should white people from middle class neighborhoods get the benefit of the doubt when the alleged victim is black?

As the days went by, and the media began to release more details about the case, such as 911 audio recordings and pictures of Zimmerman after the shooting, I started to set aside that initial feeling of anger. Zimmerman claimed that Martin was the first one to become physical, and that Martin had punched Zimmerman, causing him to be knocked back on the ground.  Zimmerman claimed that Martin then continued to beat Zimmerman's head against the pavement, and that no one responded when Zimmerman cried out for help.  Zimmerman has also stated he believed his life was in danger and that he then shot Martin in self defense.

I remembered that I'm a criminal defense attorney, and that I had completely prejudged George Zimmerman without all of the facts.  If Zimmerman was pursuing Martin and questioning why Martin was in the neighoborhood, even after a 911 operator told him to not follow Martin, it would not excuse Martin's alleged act of violence against Zimmerman.  If someone harrasses you verbally and follows you, the law does not necessarily allow you to respond with physical force.  And if I never intended to punch someone, and I found myself with my back on the ground and another person on top of me, hitting my head against the sidewalk without a seeming end, I'd probably start fearing for my life too.  And if I shouted for help and no one intervened, I'd probably start to think I'd have to save myself with force...even if that force was deadly.

A brief explanation of the law (which many media outlets seem to be getting wrong): in Florida, you are justified in using deadly force, without the duty to retreat, if you reasonably believe that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to yourself.  If you are in your home, it is presumed that you had a reasonable fear of imminent death or bodily harm.  Caselaw has established you did not have a duty to retreat first if you were in your home at the time of the unlawful force against you.  And the controversial Stand Your Ground law took away the duty to retreat when you were not in your home.

I'm not saying Zimmerman was correct.  What I am saying is that I was wrong to jump to conclusions without knowing everything.  And that I betrayed my philosophy as a defense attorney when I condemned George Zimmerman.  I focused on the wrong villain.  I shouldn't be angry with George Zimmerman because my own clients aren't given the benefit of the doubt.  My clients have been treated differently by law enforcement, and they were black, but that isn't George Zimmerman's fault.  My sense of Zimmerman's guilt or innocense should not be clouded by feelings of prior injustice against my former clients.

Justice for Tayvon...Justice for Zimmerman...Justice for All.