Shooting of Unarmed Teen Renews Debate Over “Stand Your Ground” Laws

Last month in Sanford, Florida, Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by self-appointed neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, sparking outrage and a debate over “Stand Your Ground” laws found in states across the country. Zimmerman was briefly interviewed police and not arrested for the death, with police asserting that this law ties their hands. This law, enacted in Florida under Governor Jeb Bush in 2005, provide that a person who is in danger of being killed or badly harmed may stand his or her ground and protect themselves and be immune from both criminal and civil liability. Previously, a person who was threatened by a knife or a gun had a duty to escape the situation, if reasonably possible. Under the current law, a person who is threatened may use a deadly weapon and use it against the aggressor, without making any attempt to escape.

Zimmerman, 28, told the police that he acted in self-defense when he fatally shot Martin, 17, in the chest, and Sanford police maintained that their hands were tied by the Stand Your Ground law and that probable cause did not exist to arrest Zimmerman. The victim was an African-American teenager walking in a gated community, found with a can of soda and Skittles on his person. Zimmerman observed the victim walking and called 911, saying that the victim was “suspicious.” Even though the 911 operator told Zimmerman not to follow the victim, Zimmerman did so anyway. Zimmerman maintains that the victim attacked him and that he fired at the victim in self-defense. Many are calling the investigation conducted by the Sanford police department inadequate – Florida state is conducting its own investigation, as is the US Justice Department.

According to the New York Times, the number of defendants claiming self-defense has risen significantly since the law was passed, with journalists have stating that in their discussions with police and prosecutors in Florida, the increase may be as high as three-fold. Gang members have also begun asserting protections under this law to shield participants in gang shoot-outs. With the loser of the shootout dead, the gunman’s side of the story usually prevails, according to the New York Times, and prosecutors are sometimes forced to drop the case. Rather than letting a jury decide a defense of self-defense, the decision is now often made by the police or district attorney’s office under the current law.

The state attorney in Tallahassee told the New York Times, “The consequences of the law have been devastating around the state. It’s almost insane what we are having to deal with.”

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