THERE’S NO doubt where moral responsibility for Trayvon Martin’s death lies: with George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot the unarmed teenager to death in Sanford, Fla., last year. Zimmerman had no good reason to be following Martin in his vehicle, and disobeyed a 911 dispatcher’s instructions by getting out to pursue him. Yet a jury’s decision Saturday to acquit Zimmerman on a murder charge — and even on a lesser manslaughter charge — was a sadly predictable outcome of how the laws governing the case were designed. Florida should amend its statutes accordingly.
Guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is an appropriately high standard for a criminal conviction; when prosecutors put forth muddled evidence and seemingly unprepared witnesses, as occurred in the Zimmerman case, the system properly inclines toward finding a defendant not guilty. What’s dismaying, however, is how easy it was for a Florida court to accept the claim that Zimmerman killed Martin in self-defense. The overarching mindset is exemplified by the state’s much-criticized “stand your ground” law that undergirded police investigators’ initial decision not to charge Zimmerman; promoted by the gun lobby, the measure relieves people of the obligation to flee from danger before using deadly force. In the end, the Zimmerman verdict reflected a broader willingness to accept the defendant’s subjective judgment that he was in physical danger — and never mind how that danger came about — as sufficient reason to shoot.
In this frontier mentality, besieged individuals have the right to use force against their enemies because there’s no one else to do so. But a gated community in Florida isn’t the Wild West, and this legal framework promotes a kind of vigilantism that is especially dangerous in a diverse society. Zimmerman’s suspicions of Martin, who was black, seemed to be based at least partly on the teenager’s race. Zimmerman’s acquittal reflects a presumption that, in Florida, one can pick a fight with a stranger for entirely dubious reasons, and if that stranger seems to be gaining the upper hand — as Martin did, in Zimmerman’s account — it’s acceptable to pull out a gun and shoot.
In other areas of the law, a person who creates a situation bears at least some responsibility for injuries that result from it; it’s possible that Zimmerman will still face a civil wrongful-death suit. Yet criminal law must now address the danger — heightened in a “stand your ground” era — that one person will draw another into a physical confrontation and then use a feeling of danger as pretext to shoot.