With all of the hoopla surrounding the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, it is difficult to determine what likely happened. This is my take based on a lot of years of observing human nature and trying to find the truth.
A misguided law set the stage for a tragedy in which a 17-year-old, innocent African-American youth was killed by a police officer wannabe. George Zimmerman fits the pattern of a well-intentioned neighborhood watchman, who enjoyed the inflated status of a quasi law enforcement role.
The gun he legally carried underscored that status and gave him the power and authority to amplify his importance. Unfortunately, he lacked the judgment and the training necessary to exercise the discipline and restraint expected of law enforcement officers.
The Florida “stand your ground” law permits someone to use deadly force – a gun – whenever they reasonably fear death or serious bodily harm at the hands of an assailant. Just who provoked the incident and what is reasonable fear are two threshold questions.
The law obviously creates an advantage for the person with a gun. Dead men don’t talk. The alleged assailant is unable to provide his version of events. Moreover, having a gun in your hand may influence one’s notion of what is reasonable.
Trayvon Martin was visiting his father in the gated community where George Zimmerman also lived. When Zimmerman observed a young black male wearing a hoodie, he assumed he was at least suspicious. The young man was simply returning to his father’s home after visiting a local store. Other than his race, age and the hoodie, there was nothing to suggest he was doing anything wrong. But, for Zimmerman, that was enough. Armed with a gun, his badge of authority, he decided to investigate.
After being told by the police dispatcher not to do so, he got in his vehicle and slowly followed the young man, who was talking to his girlfriend on a cell phone. Martin reportedly told his girlfriend he was being followed by a strange man. In an attempt to get away, he ran. This confirmed Zimmerman’s suspicions – the youth was up to no good.
Zimmerman exited his vehicle and followed, intent upon confronting Martin to determine what he was up to. He later reported that he lost sight of Martin, had given up the chase, and was returning to his vehicle when Martin confronted him. An argument ensued during which Martin attacked him, knocked him to the ground, and began pounding his head on the cement, according to Zimmerman. Fearing for his life, Zimmerman said, he drew his weapon and shot the youth, who took his version of the events to the grave.
What likely happened? Zimmerman was on a mission. Relying entirely on racial profiling, he believed Martin was suspicious and was determined to detain and question him. That makes him the aggressor.
From Martin’s perspective, he was being followed by an older man for no reason. His fear was justified; Zimmerman’s suspicion was not. When the two finally confronted each other, is it likely that Zimmerman would at least have displayed his weapon? In his mind, it was his badge – his power and authority. At that point, Martin was likely terrified. He was faced with an angry armed man and in reasonable fear for his life.
Who was acting in self defense? Was it Zimmerman, who precipitated the entire incident without justification after being instructed not to pursue the “suspect,” or Martin, who only knew that an angry man with a gun was after him?
Under these circumstances, would Martin have the right to physically assault Zimmerman (as Zimmerman claims)? In my opinion, he would have been justified in using physical force to protect himself. But Zimmerman had power; he possessed the gun.
Too often under the “stand your ground” law, might makes right. A person who recklessly provokes an incident and kills someone prevails, simply because the victim is dead and therefore unable to assert a claim of self defense.
One must consider the victim’s state of mind and the context in which this incident occurred in determining if Zimmerman committed a crime. His misguided zeal does not make him a bad man, only someone who lacks the discipline, maturity, and judgment to be patrolling the neighborhood with a gun.
I expect he is now truly sorry for what occurred. His life will never be the same. But the facts and the consequences call for prosecution and, if convicted, punishment for his reckless behavior – more likely negligent homicide or manslaughter.
More importantly, the law which is a throwback to the Wild West, should be changed. For all our professed concerns about human rights, our passion for guns makes us the most violent of industrialized nations.
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.