Will Trayvon’s Killer Be Charged?

Posted April 5, 2012 in Criminal Law by Courtney Sherwood

As pressure to arrest the man who shot and killed Florida teen Trayvon Martin mounts, lawyers who’ve been following the case say the next step for prosecutors will come down to the evidence that law enforcement officials gather.

Martin was shot to death on Feb. 26 by a neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, who said during a 911 call that he thought the unarmed black 17-year-old was a criminal targeting property in the gated community where he walked. Martin was actually returning to his father’s fiancée’s home, nearby, after a trip to a convenience store.

Zimmerman has so far avoided arrest because of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which prohibits prosecutors from charging people with murder or manslaughter if they kill someone else in certain self-defense situations.

But the details that have come to public light so far suggest that “Stand Your Ground” should not apply in this situation, said Delores Jones-Brown, a former prosecutor who now researches race and juvenile justice as a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Jones-Brown said that evidence that has emerged so far suggests that Zimmerman was the aggressor, and that “Stand Your Ground” should not protect him. She said:

  • In 911 recordings released to the public, Zimmerman was told by an emergency dispatcher not to follow Trayvon Martin or to engage with the teen.
  • Recordings also capture plaintive cries for help that some voice analysts say could not have come from Zimmerman – suggesting that Martin was the one calling out.
  • Though it’s not entirely clear how the altercation between Zimmerman and Martin began, some reports say that the teen was on the phone with a friend shortly before his death and told her he was worried because a stranger was following him home.
  • Zimmerman told police that he feared for his life because Martin was bashing his head into the ground and had hit his nose, but photos and videos taken the day of the shooting have cast doubt on this version of events. Some say, for example, that injuries would be on the back of his head, not its top, if the teen was really doing what’s been reported.

So far no third-party witnesses to the killing have come forward, leaving Zimmerman’s story as the only version of events.

Delores Jones Brown

“He’s come up with a story that’s pretty incredible,” Jones-Brown said. But if prosecutors are still not sure, they can turn to forensic experts to examine Zimmerman’s injuries and the 911 call recordings to see if his story matches up with the evidence.

“Based on all the publicly available evidence, I’m perplexed by why Mr. Zimmerman has not been arrested,” she said.

Mitch Stone, a defense attorney with Stone Lockett in Jacksonville, Fla., cautions that there may be details not yet made public that would justify a “Stand Your Ground” defense. But he agreed with Jones-Brown’s assessment that the evidence should ultimately determine Zimmerman’s fate.

“There are two ways in which ‘Stand Your Ground’ comes into play,” Stone said. “You are allowed to use deadly force to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony” – such as burglary, sexual battery or attempted murder – “and if you’re in fear of great bodily harm or death then you’re allowed to protect yourself and use deadly force.”

In his call to 911, 28-year-old Zimmerman said he believed Martin was a burglar. According to another resident of the community, eight previous burglaries had been committed by young black males. And Martin was a visitor to his father’s fiancée, not a familiar face in the neighborhood. So concerns about a forcible felony may have been reasonable, Stone said.

More compelling, however, is Zimmerman’s claim that he shot the teen after an altercation began between the two. “The decision on whether Zimmerman gets ‘Stand Your Ground’ immunity revolves around the reasonableness of his fear of imminent great bodily harm or death,” Stone said.

Mitch Stone

The decision to prosecute “is going to rise or fall on the basis of whether Zimmerman’s claims that he was being attacked are valid,” Stone said. “The forensics will assist in that. If Zimmerman had a busted nose, the question would be: How did he get it? If Zimmerman’s head was messed up, how did that happen? What did he do before that conflict started? These are all unanswered questions. Obviously he’s claiming it happened one way, and the prosecution is going to face that it’s not clear cut. If he started the conflict or the aggression was not as significant as he claims, he may not get the right to claim ‘Stand Your Ground.’”

Stone’s clients have been on both sides of the “Stand Your Ground” law.

He represented a woman who severely cut a man who was attacking her. Even though she may have initially started the fight, she then tried to back down by getting into her car, and the man continued to punch her in the face. Though she caused a potentially deadly gash when she fought back, she was granted immunity from prosecution under Florida law.

The killer of another of Stone’s clients was not prosecuted because of “Stand Your Ground,” meanwhile.

The Florida law gives potential defendants three levels of protection:

  • Prosecutors can decline to press charges if they believe “Stand Your Ground” applies.
  • In a “Stand Your Ground” hearing, a judge may declare somebody immune from charges. This prohibits both criminal and civil claims against the person.
  • Finally, a  jury may apply “Stand Your Ground” as a result of a trial.

Initially, prosecutors appeared to be exercising their prerogative not to charge Zimmerman. After publicity and cries of racist application of the law began to mount, however, special prosecutor Angela Corey was appointed to review the evidence and decide how to act.

If she decides not to press charges, federal prosecutors may step in. Already, FBI agents have started a civil rights investigation into the case.

Debbie Hines

Debbie Hines, a former prosecutor who founded LegalSpeaks, a blog about sex, race and the law, said that a civil rights investigation is clearly appropriate, given inconsistent application of the law in Florida.

Casey Anthony, accused of killing her white two-year-old daughter, was ultimately acquitted of first degree murder due to inadequate evidence, but at least she was tried, Hines said. Meanwhile, she said, the publicly-known evidence against Zimmerman, a Hispanic man accused of killing an African American, seems much more compelling, and yet no charges have been pressed.

“I hope that, through the state attorney’s office in Florida, they’re going to bring charges, either for manslaughter or second degree murder,” Hines said. “If the state attorney’s office does not prosecute, my hope would be that the Justice Department can find a way to bring charges. To not have this tried in court and let a jury decide is a tragedy.”

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