Trayvon Martin was shot to death in Sanford, Florida last April. Fred Zimmerman shot him. That much is known, but too little else is known for sure.
The shooting made national headlines because it involves the “Stand Your Ground” law that allows Floridians to use deadly force in self-defense under certain circumstances. It also made headlines because Trayvon was African American and Zimmerman was not, and Zimmerman was not initially charged with any crime. The African-American community and its sympathizers cried “foul.” Eventually, even the President of the United States came down to make a statement.
Now that Zimmerman has been charged with second degree homicide by a second prosecutor appointed by the governor, the jury will have to decide most importantly what was in the mind of Zimmerman just when he pulled the trigger. Intent and state of mind are always proved or disproved by circumstantial evidence, and ultimately by arguments about the tiniest details. The problem in this case is that a lot of details were lost due to the haphazard investigation by the small-town police force.
Zimmerman told police he thought Martin, 17 yrs old, was an intruder in his gated community. Investigation has shown he was not an intruder. Martin was a guest at the Retreat at Twin Lakes and his girlfriend was exchanging text messages just before he was shot. Most critically, there were no witnesses to the beginning of the fight between the two, the fight ended with Martin’s getting shot to death and Zimmerman receiving a broken nose and lacerations on the back of his head. Witnesses saw the two fighting and heard one of them crying, “help,” but it’s uncertain which of them cried out.
Police interviewed Zimmerman only 15 minutes before concluding the shooting was justified. They never looked for his car, the location of which might have given some perspective on how far he walked to Martin.
Also significant, as reported from the first, was the fact that Zimmerman followed Martin and reported his following to the 9-11 call center. When Zimmerman made this call, the 9-11 operator told Zimmerman to get back in his car, not to confront Martin. It is this fact, that Zimmerman disregarded the 9-11 dispatcher, that Martin sympathizers claim makes Zimmerman an aggressor and therefore guilty of causing a confrontation and of killing Martin unnecessarily. Zimmerman sympathizers claim that a 9-11 dispatcher has no authority to give any directions or legal advice, and that Zimmerman simply continued to follow Martin until Martin attacked Zimmerman.
That would be the nub of the case if Zimmerman were facing a jury in Oklahoma. The jury would be given an instruction of law as follows: “ A person is an aggressor when that person by his/her wrongful acts provokes, brings about, or continues an altercation.” The instruction also provides the following additional language where appropriate: “The use of words alone cannot make a person an aggressor.” OUJI-CR 8-53: Defense of Self-defense – Aggressor Defined.
The jury in Oklahoma would also be given an instruction of law that provides:
“A person is justified in using deadly force in self-defense if that person reasonably believed that use of deadly force was necessary to protect himself/herself from imminent danger of death or great bodily harm. Self-defense is a defense although the danger to life or personal security may not have been real, if a reasonable person, in the circumstances and from the viewpoint of the defendant, would reasonably have believed that he/she was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm.” OUJI-CR 8-46: Defense of Self-defense – Justifiable Use of Deadly Force”
The Court of Criminal Appeals has further explained regarding this law:
“Fear alone does not justify a homicide, nor may a homicide be justified because of threats or insults by the decedent, nor may a defendant kill and be justified when acting simply on subjective honest belief. Rather, a homicide is justifiable when a reasonable person would have used deadly force. A homicide is also justifiable when the use of deadly force is reasonably necessary because the danger appears imminent.” And finally, “The jury should view the circumstances from the viewpoint of the defendant.”
Moreover, if Zimmerman was not the aggressor (as defined above), he would have no duty to retreat in Oklahoma. “A person who (was not the aggressor)/(did not provoke another with intent to cause an altercation)/(did not voluntarily enter into mutual combat) has no duty to retreat, but may stand firm and use the right of self-defense.” (OUJI-CR-8-52)
When this case finally goes to trial in Florida, it will be difficult for observers to follow the evidence in the media because the smallest details in evidence can be significant, and the contexts of those details matter a lot. It requires considerable time and patience to present all that is necessary for a full understanding of those details and those contexts, and headline news does not have that patience nor give that time. This is one of the reasons trial judges warn juries not to read or listen to news reports of the case they are hearing.