NYCSOUTHPAW

"In the end it all comes down to talent." -Sandy Koufax

The Key Legal Question in the Trayvon Martin Case: Who Started The Fight?

As I read Florida’s self defense statute, the key question in the Trayvon Martin case is who attacked whom—who started the fight?—not the nebulous question of what George Zimmerman believed.

Here is the Florida stand your ground law…

Florida Statute 776.013(3): “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.

Let’s break the above language down. To qualify under the stand your ground law, you have to…

(1): be all 3 of the following:

 (a) a person [okay, George Zimmerman is a person.]

 (b) not engaged in an unlawful activity, and [doubtful, if Zimmerman initiated the fight with Trayvon Martin for no good reason, as seems likely, he was engaged in an unlawful activity.]

 (c) attacked (in a place where you have a right to be) [again, if Zimmerman started the fight, he likely was not attacked.]

—and—

(2): reasonably believe your action is necessary to prevent one of the following:

 (a) death 

 (b) harm to yourself or another, or 

 (c) a forcible felony[see below the rabbit for all these]

The key point: Zimmerman had to be attacked while doing something lawful in order to rely on the stand your ground law.  If he attacked Trayvon Martin unlawfully, it’s hard to see how he gets past the threshold.

A lot of the commentary I’ve read on the Trayvon Martin case seems to miss this point (e.g., this otherwise excellent New Yorker comment).  Instead, William Finnegan and others focus on what Zimmerman had to believe under the statute’s second limb, i.e. (2)(a)-(c), but that’s actually a super easy test to pass.

Remember, by the time you get to (2), you’ve already been attacked. If you’re still involved in that altercation, then it won’t be very hard to show you were reasonably in fear for your life or your health.  If the person who attacked you has moved on to menacing other victims or some other forcible felony (e.g. trying to steal your wife’s car), it’s not a huge challenge to demonstrate that using force—even deadly force—is reasonably necessary.  We already know, after all, that you’re dealing with a violent attacker.

[IMPORTANT CAVEAT: I’m not a Florida lawyer and I haven’t looked at the relevant case law, so please take all this for what it is—a simple interpretation of the statutory language. It is not legal advice.]

UPDATE: Here are the jury instructions related to the statute:

The case cited in the instructions, Novak v. State, is here and this 2010 case may have some bearing as well.

  1. nycsouthpaw posted this