The differences between “stand your ground” and common self-defense

By popular demand, lets take some of the issues in the Zimmerman case a little deeper just for discussion’s sake. There are many levels to discuss and so few hours in the day. That being said, this is one case out of thousands that deserve attention but in this instance, we’re all familiar with it.

On the topic of “stand your ground” and the misinformation which continues to fly regarding such laws, there are several differences between that statute and what’s commonly considered self-defense.

First and foremost, the Florida “stand your ground” (SYG) statute did not apply in the Zimmerman case nor was it ever argued by the defense to apply. Typically self-defense law holds that if you’re attacked with force and fear for your life or fear great bodily harm, you must attempt to retreat until you can retreat no further, at that point you can use deadly force simply under the banner of self-defense. All states have some form of this dating back centuries.

In Florida, the SYG statute simply removes the victim’s burden to retreat and says that, if you’re the innocent party who has not provoked the attack, you do not have to retreat before deploying deadly force on your attacker. In essence, SYG is a burden-shifting law which empowers the victim in the case of an attack. In Florida there is what is known as a “stand your ground hearing” which allows you to present evidence that you stood your ground in the face of an attacker and if the court agrees, your case is dismissed since you were the innocent victim defending yourself without the need to retreat. There mere fact that George Zimmerman was on trial means that SYG did not apply to this case.

Explanation of Florida’s “stand your ground” statute:

Under Florida law, โ€œ[a] person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.โ€ ยง 776.013(3), Fla. Stat. (2007).

Explanation of Florida’s “stand your ground” hearing:

When the defendant files a motion to invoke the statutory immunity, then the trial court must hold a pre-trial evidentiary hearing to determine if the preponderance of the evidence warrants immunity. See State v. Yaqubie, 51 So.3d 474, 476 (Fla. 3d DCA 2010).

At the hearing, the trial court must weigh and decide factual disputes as to the defendant’s use of force to determine whether to dismiss the case based on the immunity. Peterson v. State, 983 So.2d 27, 29 (Fla. 1st DCA 2008). The defendant bears the burden of proof on the issue of whether the “stand your ground” or “castle doctrine” immunity attaches to his or her actions. Id.

During the evidentiary hearing the trial court considers the disputed issues of fact and must make a finding under the preponderance of the evidence standard. The court can either dismiss the charges or allow the prosecution to go forward.

If you apply this to the Zimmerman case it’s clear that because George Zimmerman exited his truck and followed Trayvon Martin, the SYG statute cannot apply to this case. Thus, George Zimmerman waived his right to a “stand your ground hearing” because he knew and his attorneys knew the SYG statute did not protect Zimmerman because he did not act within the confines of the SYG statute since his actions helped lead to the altercation that ended Trayvon Martin’s life.

Therefore, the demands to abolish or curtail the concept of the SYG laws around the country are misguided and do not take into account that it had no effect on the outcome of this case. Around 30 states have a similar SYG statute to Florida. Other states, such as Washington and Virginia, have SYG precedent in Common Law dating back hundreds of years.

As to what actually happened with regard to self-defense law, the jury believed that as Zimmerman and Martin fought on the ground, Martin may have pinned Zimmerman to the ground meaning Zimmerman, under pure self-defense, could not retreat and thus had the right under the law to use deadly force. Again, this scenario has nothing to do with the SYG statute in Florida law. It would have played the same way in nearly every state since it is under the banner of self-defense. Federal Law also holds the same concept of self-defense.

In some states, the burden or description of manslaughter might read differently which could have affected the outcome but in this case, the law as it was written was applied by the jury. Since they believed George Zimmerman’s account and the witness’ account of what they believe happened, self-defense law acquitted George Zimmerman, not the “stand your ground” law.

Had the jury not believed that George Zimmerman feared for his life, self-defense would not have applied either.