What is more shocking than the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was shot by 28-year-old George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., is the fact that a statute of Florida law, referred to as "Stand your Ground," precluded Zimmerman from facing immediate legal repercussions.
"Stand your Ground" originates from the Beard v. U.S. (1895) case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that a man was entitled to defend himself against an individual, who he believed was intending upon, or was in the process of taking his life, or doing him bodily harm. This tenet is derived from a larger, earlier English common law, known as the Castle Doctrine, which allows homeowners the right to protect themselves against intruders, and precludes them from prosecution should they take the lives of the home invaders. Despite the age of these doctrines, as of May 2010, 31 states in the U.S. had adopted some form of one or both of these laws.
Few will question that a property owner has the right to protect his/her family and home from a violent home invader; it's a concept of self-defense that extends beyond law to familial obligation. However, the issue that arises from a case like the death of teenage Trayvon Martin, is the extent to which the right to protect oneself can be exercised in this country.
While some of the explicit details of the events that led up to the shooting are still being examined with a fine-toothed comb, it has become clear based on 911 conversations that Zimmerman pursued Martin before shooting him.
The question that arises then, is why Zimmerman is only facing potential prosecution now. It is almost inconceivable to imagine an armed adult following a teenager, against the express disapproval of the police department, and shooting him dead based on his own suspicions. The whole notion of "Stand your Ground" is that the killing of an individual is justifiable based on his/her immediate threat to one's person. It certainly doesn't seem like self-defense when a "suspect" is followed from a convenience store and shot to death.
Although Florida law permits people to carry guns in public, Zimmerman was neither allowed to be armed as a member of Neighborhood Watch, nor was it his duty to approach Martin, while awaiting the police he himself called. In all fairness, Martin was afforded the same rights to "stand his ground" upon being confronted by a pursuing Zimmerman. When the details are foggy, and the only person who could speak on his own behalf is deceased, it is difficult to ascertain who exactly was doing the threatening here.
Giving people the opportunity to carry guns and justify the lives they take with a legal clause is an unprecedented, unjustifiable cop-out. Florida Statute 776.013(3), which cemented the "Stand your Ground" clause was only adopted in 2005, and according to a 2010 report it was invoked in at least 93 cases with 65 deaths throughout that five-year time span. In most of these cases, the use of force was excused by the court system.
Yesterday a new development emerged in this case, which was already racially-charged. On one of Zimmerman's recorded calls to the Sanford Police Department, he is heard saying what sounds like the phrase, "fucking coons," under his breath. In addition to this newly-released piece of information, Martin's girl friend spoke about the encounter as she heard it through the teenager's cellphone. He was on the phone with her upon returning from a convenience store, during which time Martin told her that he was aware of Zimmerman following him, to which she replied that he should run. Martin refused and Zimmerman eventually caught up to him at which point the teenager was shot and killed.
No matter the ultimate outcome of the case, it is pretty damn difficult not to find fault in Zimmerman's actions. No one can be certain, despite all the circumstantial evidence, that Zimmerman was entirely motivated by racial profiling. No one can unequivocally know whether Martin had any intentions of wrongdoing. But the truth is that certain inalienable rights for which this country has striven so hard to attain and uphold are outdated, impractical and damaging.
There is a clear difference between protecting one's home from a man in a mask, breaking glass with a crowbar, and taking the life of a teenager based on a suspicion. Whether or not Martin posed any sort of threat to Zimmerman, the judicial system will have failed if it doesn't recognize Zimmerman's actions as a gross mishandling of an already impractical code of laws. Hopefully, if nothing else, the Martin family will be able to find peace in the fact that Zimmerman will be put behind bars, and Florida, as well as its 30 peers, will wise up and realize that the "Stand your Ground" law is only incentivizing vigilante behavior. The moment this country finds it permissible for citizens to assume the roles of police officers, based on their own perceptions of threatening situations, I'll book the first flight to Canada.