Standing Your Ground

As far as we can gather, what happened is this: George Zimmerman saw a young black male in his neighborhood. He thought, for reasons which are unclear, that the man looked suspicious. Quite properly, he reported this to the police. He is involved in his Neighborhood Watch and that is exactly what he should have done. Quite contrary to police instructions, he decided to pursue the young man – later identified as Trayvon Martin.

When the police arrived, Martin was dead: shot by Zimmerman. Not murder, according to Zimmerman, but self-defense. He felt threatened by the younger, and very much smaller, man. Under Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law he was not obliged to retreat, but could defend himself. The police decided not to pursue the matter.

Is that reasonable? Well, if Zimmerman genuinely felt threatened, yes it is. And Zimmerman’s account was the only one to hand. Martin was saying nothing. But there were reasons, even in the moment, for the police to doubt Zimmerman’s account. They knew he had pursued Martin in a most unwise way. Perhaps Martin was the one who had had reason to feel threatened. They could see that Martin had been unarmed, and was very much smaller than Zimmerman. This does not amount to evidence beyond reasonable doubt that Zimmerman is guilty of murder, but it is certainly reason to start an investigation. And as a responsible member of his Neighborhood Watch, Zimmerman could hardly have objected. If you shoot someone dead, you must at least expect to have to answer some fairly pointed questions on the matter. A police officer certainly would expect that. Why would a Neighborhood Watch captain be exempt?

So those who suggest there is something wrong with the Florida law are either missing the point or simply using this tragedy as a way of attacking a law they disliked anyway. The law does not prevent prosecution – or, at the very least, further investigation. It is a ‘stand your ground’ law, not a ‘chase after someone and kill them’ law.

It seems that further investigation would have rapidly uncovered more evidence. It seems ear witnesses reported hearing someone yelling for help. The police did not have, in first instance, the account of Martin’s girlfriend, to whom he was on the phone up until seconds before the confrontation with Zimmerman, but they had Martin’s phone. By pressing a single button they could have discovered the time and duration of his most recent connection, as well as the other party’s number. That would, at the very least, have indicated a strong possibility that the other party had some information of relevance to the enquiry. Detailed examination of the recordings made by 911 operators suggest something the operator did not clearly hear at the time – Zimmerman may have uttered a racial expletive before pursuing Martin.

The police were probably wise not to dive too quickly into prosecution. Zimmerman was within his rights to patrol his neighborhood, and it is not easy to reconstruct the events with precision. In terms of racial politics we should note that Zimmerman is Hispanic, and if police seemed overly eager to side with the black man against the Hispanic that could have been as incendiary as the other way round, given Florida’s racial mix. But there does seem to have been enough evidence to warrant a more thorough investigation than was, at first, undertaken.

Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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