Federal authorities have launched an investigation into the fatal shooting of an unarmed 17-year-old boy in Florida late last month. The boy, Trayvon Martin, was shot to death in a gated community in Sanford, Florida, by a 28-year-old security guard, George Zimmerman, who believed Martin was suspicious and posed a threat to the safety of the community.
The case has drawn national attention in part because Martin was black, raising concerns that the shooting was racially motivated. (Zimmerman has been described by police as white, though he self-identifies as Hispanic.) But perhaps the biggest source of national interest has been the fact that Zimmerman has not been charged with any crime, thanks to a Florida law that so far has provided him with legal protection.
The law, known informally as "stand your ground," provides immunity from prosecution for those who shoot others if they feeel they are in danger of serious harm and do so in self-defense. The law is a version of widespread "castle doctrine" statutes that allow self-defense shootings within the home to fight off intruders. Unlike "castle doctrine" laws, however, "stand your ground" measures apply to many public places, not just the home.
In the aftermath of the Martin shooting, many legal experts, editorial boards and advocacy groups say Florida's "stand your ground" law goes too far, arguing that the measure essentially allows murder to be classified as self-defense. "Such laws eliminate the English law concept of a 'duty to retreat' from dangerous situations outside the home," The Christian Science Monitor notes . "Without that, an armed citizen has no obligation to stand down in the face of a threat."
In the Florida case, critics note that Zimmerman pursued Martin and did not attempt to stand down, even after being told to do so by an emergency dispatcher. But that may be irrelevant under the phrasing of the Florida statute. "Even if you have suspicions about what motivated this, and you think there was a racial element and no justification for this shooting, the fact is he had no obligation to retreat under the law," Jeffrey Bellin, a law professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, tells the paper. "If prosecutors don't have the evidence to disprove the claim of self-defense, they won't be able to win."
The Monitor reports that Florida was the first state to pass a "stand your ground" law in 2005, and that 17 states now have such statutes on the books. In Florida, reports of "justifiable homicides" have tripled since the "stand your ground" law went into effect, according to the Tampa Bay Times . "It has been used to absolve violence resulting from road rage, barroom arguments and even a gang gunfight," the paper notes in an editorial critical of the law. "In 2008, two gangs in Tallahassee got into a shootout where a 15-year-old boy was killed. The charges were dismissed by a judge citing the 'stand your ground' law."