Protesters in Chicago gather to decry the slaying of Trayvon Martin. (Brian Cassella / Chicago…)
Reporting from Sanford, Fla., and Los Angeles — George Zimmerman has so far avoided arrest in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by using Florida’s "stand your ground" defense, but the case has forced even supporters of the statute to confront what critics say are gaping holes that leave it open to wildly disparate interpretations.
Even the lawyer who has emerged as an advisor to Zimmerman, Craig Sonner, appeared uncertain Friday over whether Stand Your Ground should apply in this case, despite Sanford police claims that the reason Zimmerman remains free is because "stand your ground" protects him.
And the former Florida governor, Jeb Bush, who signed the bill into law in 2005 and supported its passage, said Saturday he did not think it should protect Zimmerman, who shot the unarmed teen after trailing him as Trayvon walked to the home of a family friend living in the same gated community as Zimmerman.
“Stand your ground means stand your ground. It doesn’t mean chase after somebody who’s turned their back,” Bush said while speaking at the University of Texas in Arlington.
But the law as written in Florida and at least 20 other states does not require a person to retreat to prevent a possible altercation; and it does not address the question of whether it is OK to chase down someone who has been perceived as a threat. In fact, last Wednesday, a Florida judge threw out the second-degree murder case against a man who chased a burglar more than a block and stabbed him to death. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beth Bloom cited "stand your ground," the Miami Herald reported.
Police Sgt. Ervens Ford called it a “travesty of justice,” the paper said. “How can it be 'stand your ground'?” he said. “It’s on [surveillance] video! You can see him stabbing the victim.”
Cases such as Trayvon Martin's shed light on “the problems these liberalized self-defense laws create,” said Sam Hoover at the San Francisco-based Legal Community Against Violence. "This is not an isolated incident," he said of the Sanford killing. "Other individuals have escaped liability too simply because of these laws, how open they are and the way law enforcement has been treating them.”
Zimmerman remains free because Sanford police said he invoked the "stand your ground" defense and there were no witnesses to disprove it. So does Thomas Baker, who in November 2010 went jogging shortly after midnight with his loaded pistol. He ran into 18-year-old Carlos Mustelier on a jogging trail and ended up pumping several bullets into the man, who he said attacked him. The killing was ruled a justifiable homicide.
Two months after Mustelier died, Barbara Standard's son, Scott Standard, was shot to death during an altercation with a neighbor even though he was not armed. The "stand your ground" defense applied, though, because the neighbor said he felt Standard -- who had thrown a rock at his truck and with whom he had a long rivalry -- was a threat.
“I believe in the 2nd Amendment. My son had guns. My husband has guns," Barbara Standard said. "But this is not the Wild West. It’s bad enough to lose someone. But to have no justice…The man who shot my son walks free. Nothing happened. And our lives are changed forever.”
The racial undertones of the Trayvon Martin case have underscored what many say are the added risks that African American youths face as long as "stand your ground" laws exist. President Obama on Friday said that if he had a son, "he'd look like Trayvon."
"It's unfortunate that we have a statute that would allow an individual to take someone's life and indicate they did it in self-defense because no witnesses were there," said Sanford City Commissioner Velma Williams, who is black. "I have a husband. I have two sons and I have a grandson who's 11, and I think about the fact they are at risk. And ... if someone can shoot them in cold-blooded murder and if no witnesses are there and he can say he did it in self-defense, that is a sad commentary."
Lorenzo Polk, a young black Sanford resident, said he and people who look like him were weary of being afraid to venture out after dark knowing that "stand your ground" protects someone who might find them menacing.
"It's just so heartbreaking that I live in a city where I don't feel comfortable when I'm out at night," said Polk, one of more than a dozen residents who addressed the City Commission at a meeting last Wednesday. "I work. I pay my taxes. I go to school. It's just so heartbreaking that this has happened."
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