Zimmerman Foregoes Self-Defense Hearing – For Now

Posted May 7, 2013 in Criminal Law by

Despite plans hinted at last year to the contrary, George Zimmerman’s lawyer Mark O’Mara said in court on Apr. 30 that the defense would not be seeking a self-defense hearing before Zimmerman’s trial. O’Mara says it’s not a change in course, but more an “evolution” of the defense strategy.


Buying More Time

Florida in 2005 waived the duty to retreat a defendant would normally have had under traditional self-defense. Thus, in Florida, if you believe you are in danger of great bodily injury or death, you can use deadly force without having to show you could have retreated. This became known as a “stand your ground” defense. 

George Zimmerman brought “stand your ground” into the legal lexicon of Americans. The neighborhood watch volunteer shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager, on a rainy night in a Florida subdivision, after reporting to 911 what he thought was suspicious behavior and then claiming that Martin attacked him.

The self-defense hearing – a mini-trial held separately from a trial over his guilt or innocence – would have required Zimmerman to prove he reasonably feared for his life and acted in self-defense when he shot Martin during a scuffle on the sidewalk. Nothing about “retreat” would come up. If successful, Zimmerman would walk – or be “immune” to prosecution.

The case has polarized the country, with many seeing the case as an example of rabid racial profiling, and others viewing it as a perfect example of how Florida’s law should work.

So why isn’t Zimmerman going to stand his ground in court?


Self-Defense Still in Effect

Mark O'Mara headshot

Mark O'Mara

“Mr. Zimmerman has a clear self-defense case, and a self-defense immunity hearing would be one valid venue for proving George’s case,” O’Mara tells Lawyers.com. “Last year we indicated that we expected to conduct a self-defense immunity hearing, but since then, we have identified some important strategic advantages to not having a pre-trial hearing.”  

“In addition, that was before our Motion to Continue was denied,” O’Mara continues, referring to Judge Debra Nelson’s decision in February to stick to a trial date of June 10.

“On March 5, we told the Court we would not need the two weeks set aside in April for the hearing, so this week’s news is consistent with the evolution of our defense strategy,” O’Mara says. 

In a traditional self-defense claim, Zimmerman would want to put his opportunity to retreat into the mix. O’Mara has said many times in the past that Zimmerman did not have that opportunity – it is a cornerstone of his version of events. “George is very comfortable with his decision to have a jury of citizens decide his self-defense assertion,” O’Mara tells Lawyers.com.


Anticipating More Litigation?

But this may not be the end of the story as far as stand your ground goes. “The Florida statute provides for immunity from prosecution and immunity from civil liability in self-defense cases,” O’Mara points out.

It’s a good bet that Zimmerman will need protection from civil liability as well; Martin’s parents have already successfully sued Zimmerman’s homeowners association: The case settled in April.

“By not having a pre-trial hearing, George preserves his right to petition the court for criminal and/or civil immunity at the time of his choosing,” O’Mara says. That means that he could ask for the immunity hearing later, if he is found guilty and wants another shot at proving his innocence.

Next up is another status hearing at the end of May. O’Mara says the next weeks will be spent “completing depositions, lining up experts, and preparing for jury selection, which begins June 10.”

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