Why were Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman judged by different standards?
Ever since a Seminole County, Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty on Saturday night of murdering Trayvon Martin, many commentators in the mainstream media have made a special effort to point out that Florida’s “Stand Your Ground and Shoot First” law played no role whatsoever in Zimmerman’s acquittal.
Here, for example, is a clip – cut courtesy of Media Matters – of CNN’s Chris Cuomo dismissing Stand Your Ground’s impact on the case during a Sunday broadcast, less than a day after the jury announced its verdict.
Chris is just wrong. “Stand Your Ground” isn’t some stand-alone law, it’s a complete modification of Florida’s rules governing the use of deadly force for self-defense. As a result, it played an essential role in the Zimmerman trial. In fact, it created two different standards by which the six jurors judged both George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin.
As former Florida State Senator Dan Gelber has pointed out, pre-Jeb Bush, pre- Koch Brothers, and pre-ALEC Florida law would have required the following instructions to be read to a jury in a self-defense murder trial:
“The defendant [George Zimmerman] cannot justify the use of force likely to cause death or great bodily harm unless he used every reasonable means within his power and consistent with his own safety to avoid the danger before resorting to that force. The fact that the defendant [George Zimmerman] was wrongfully attacked cannot justify his use of force likely to cause death or great bodily harm if by retreating he could have avoided the need to use that force.”
Note that according to these jury instructions, the defendant must do everything possible, including retreating, before attempting to use deadly force.
When confronted with a threat in 2005 and before, whether it was a deadly threat or simply the threat of violence, or even when confronted with actual violence, like being punched in the face or knocked to the pavement, the legal obligation was to work yourself free and run.
All that changed in Florida in 2006, when Florida’s brand-spanking new and ALEC-promoted Stand Your Ground and Shoot First law came into effect.
Since 2006, post-Jeb Bush, post-Koch Brothers, and post-NRA and ALEC, the Stand Your Ground and Shoot First concept has become fully integrated into Florida’s law regarding self-defense and the use of deadly force.
This is why the jury instructions for the Zimmerman jury included Stand Your Ground language, because that language is now part of Florida’s laws about self-defense.
Listen carefully to the difference between the “You Must Retreat” language in the pre-2006 jury instructions and the instructions used in the Zimmerman trial. Remember, before 2006 Florida law said that even if the other guy started the fight, you still had an obligation to run. The old law read as follows:
“The fact that the defendant was wrongfully attacked cannot justify his use of force likely to cause death or great bodily harm if by retreating he could have avoided the need to use that force.”
By comparison, here are the Stand Your Ground instructions that actually were read to the Zimmerman jury:
“The danger facing George Zimmerman need not have been actual; however, to justify the use of deadly force, the appearance of danger must have been so real that a reasonably cautious and prudent person under the same circumstances would have believed that the danger could be avoided only through the use of that force. Based upon appearances, George Zimmerman must have actually believed that the danger was real.
“George Zimmerman… had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself …”
George Zimmerman didn’t even have to have a threat of deadly force used against him. All he had to do was imagine that there was such a threat. And instead of running, he could stand his ground and shoot first to kill.
Even more interesting than this is that both in the actual Zimmerman trial and in the trial conducted in the American media, both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman were essentially on trial.
In the courtroom proceedings, Trayvon Martin was being judged as part of Zimmerman’s self-defense argument. “Why he didn’t run away from Zimmerman?” the defense asked. Because Martin didn’t run away, Zimmerman’s lawyers suggested that Zimmerman was justified in killing him. This was so explicit in the trial that defense attorney Mark O’Mara even asked for four minutes of silence during his closing arguments as if to demonstrate that Trayvon Martin had plenty of time to turn and run.
Here’s a clip of O’Mara’s remarks.
And in the media trial of Trayvon Martin, commentators have repeatedly asked, “why didn’t the seventeen year-old just run away from the armed man who was chasing him?”
As one of Florida’s most famous white pastors, Bill Keller, argued in a nationally published op-ed, “The facts were clear that Trayvon Martin had more than enough time to get back to his father’s house, but chose instead to confront Zimmerman, break his nose, and continue the violent attack.” In other words, Trayvon Martin should have run away.
So, the question: Why was Trayvon Martin judged, both in the trial and in the media, on the basis of the pre-2006 Florida self-defense law that requires a person to do everything they can to avoid violence up to and including running away?
And, equally troubling, if that was the standard that Trayvon Martin was held to, why was George Zimmerman, who actually held the gun and fired the shot, held to a different standard and allowed to stand his ground and kill an unarmed teenager without penalty?
Remember, nobody ever seriously suggested, in the trial or in the media, that Trayvon Martin had a right to stand his ground. Instead, everybody wanted to know why he didn’t run.
And remember that over and over again the media, George Zimmerman’s lawyers, and Judge Nelson herself explicitly said that George Zimmerman had the legal right to stand his ground and use deadly force if he even felt threatened. While Trayvon should have run, Zimmerman didn’t have to run.
Remember the actual instructions that Judge Nelson read to the jury about the standard to which George Zimmerman should be judged:
“George Zimmerman… had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another…”
Why were George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin judged by different standards? Why was Trayvon Martin judged according to pre-Koch brothers Florida law, while George Zimmerman was judged according to post-Koch brothers Florida law? And, perhaps more importantly, why is nobody in the media pointing this out?
If you’re as astounded by this as I am, you may want to contact your local media outlet and ask them that question.