ECLECTIC RANT: Trayvon Martin Killing: Let Investigations Run Their Course

By Ralph E. Stone
Thursday April 05, 2012 - 02:50:00 PM

On Feb. 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager, was shot to death by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman captain. The teen was walking inside a gated community in Sanford, Florida, where his father and stepmother lived. Zimmerman claimed self-defense and was not arrested or charged and little or no investigation was conducted by the Sanford police department. 

On March 19, the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division and the FBI decided to investigate the shooting. 

On March 20, the Seminole County State's Attorney office, which had been handed the case by Sanford police, announced that it was investigating the incident and would convene a grand jury on April 10 to hear evidence in the shooting. 

On March 22, Sanford police chief Bill Lee announced he was taking a temporary leave of absence. This announcement came a day after Sanford's City Commission voted by 3-2 "no confidence" in the chief. 

Everyday we hear about the public outrage about the incident. Isn't it time for everyone to step back and wait for the Justice Department and the State of Florida to complete their investigations. The Justice Department will determine whether Zimmerman violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which among other things, outlaws major forms of discrimination against African Americans and women, including racial segregation. The 911 tape does indicate Zimmerman might have used the word "coon" when referring to Martin and Martin is Black while Zimmerman father is White and his mother is Hispanic. 

Zimmerman was not a member of any neighborhood watch group recognized by the National Sheriff's Association, the parent organization of USAonWatch-Neighborhood Watch . All neighborhood watch programs are not required to be members. Zimmerman violated the central tenets of Neighborhood Watch by following Martin, confronting him, and carrying a concealed weapon. If he had been a member of a recognized group, he would have been subject to a background check, been psychologically evaluated, and trained. And it is not clear Zimmerman would have been allowed to register with a neighborhood watch program because in the months prior to the Martin homicide, Zimmerman had made over 40 calls to police to report suspicious activities. This over-zealousness alone should have raised suspicions about his suitability. 

In his article, "America as a Gun Culture," historian Richard Hofstadter popularized the phrase "gun culture" to describe America's long-held affection for firearms, with many citizens embracing and celebrating the association of guns and America's heritage. According to Hofstadter, the right to own a gun and defend oneself is considered by some, especially those in the West and South, as a central tenet of the American identity. Given America's gun culture, it is not surprising, but regrettable in my opinion, that the Supreme Court in District of Columbia vs. Heller found that Americans have a Second Amendment right to "keep and bear arms." 

In keeping with the Heller decision and our gun culture, Florida makes it easy to own a gun. It does not require a permit to purchase a handgun and there is no requirement to register or obtain a license for a handgun. Florida does require a license to carry a concealed weapon or firearm. I assume that the Sanford police checked whether Zimmerman was licensed to carry a concealed weapon. 

Federal and state laws recognize a defense to certain criminal charges involving force (self defense). Under federal and state laws, the use of force is justified when a person reasonably believes that it is necessary for the defense of oneself or another against the immediate use of unlawful force. However, a person must use no more force than appears reasonably necessary in the circumstances. Force likely to cause death or great bodily harm is justified in self defense only if a person reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm. 

In 2005, Florida took self defense a step further by enacting a "Stand Your Ground" law. Under this law, persons are not required to retreat in the face of danger. Backed by the National Rifle Association, the "Stand Your Ground" legislation won broad support from Florida lawmakers and praise from then-Governor Jeb Bush as "a good, common-sense, anti-crime issue." Critics of the law call it the "right-to-commit-murder" law. 

From 2005 through June 2010, there have been 420 justifiable homicides in Florida. 

Sixteen other states have enacted similar "Stand Your Ground" laws. 

Recently, Florida’s "Stand Your Ground" law was successfully applied in a case against Greyston Garcia. Pedro Roteta was trying to steal the radio from Garcia’s truck when a roommate alerted Garcia. Garcia then grabbed a knife and chased Roteta for over a block, before killing him. Roteta was unarmed. On March 21, a Florida judge dismissed the case against Garcia, citing the "Stand Your Ground" law. Similarly, the law seems to give Zimmerman several protections. Even though the 911 tape suggests he pursued Martin when the police told him to stay away, he has claimed that Martin attacked him and shot him in self defense. The Florida police are placed in a difficult position when faced with a shooting where there is a colorable self defense claim knowing that the courts will freely apply the "Stand Your Ground" self defense law. 

At the very least, states should rethink their "Stand Your Ground" laws, and Sanford should evaluate its neighborhood watch programs. 

I understand Zimmerman has gone into hiding. The New Black Panthers have offered a $10,000 reward for his capture. Vigilante justice is not, and never will be, the answer. Let's wait until all the evidence is in and evaluated.