Don’t rush to judgment in FL case

You’ve probably heard about the Florida case in which an Hispanic volunteer neighborhood watchman shot and killed an unarmed black teenager.  Virtually everyone in the mainstream media, up to and including the President, seems to be rushing to the judgment that the watchman is a racist who shot the deceased, Trayvon Martin, just because he was black.  But since the moment this story broke, I’ve been cautioning people against that.

The watchman, George Zimmerman, apparently had a legal permit to carry a gun, and as facts dribble out, we’re also learning that Zimmerman may have sustained a broken nose and deep lacerations to his head before pulling the gun.  Police responding to the scene also did not arrest Zimmerman.  Now maybe that’s because they’re all racists, too, or maybe it’s because there’s ample, as-yet-undisclosed evidence that the shooting was in self-defense.

Some in the media are saying that this proves there’s something wrong with “stand your ground” laws like the one they have in Florida.  No, it doesn’t prove that.  Basically, “stand your ground” laws simply say that you don’t have to try to run away from an assailant before using deadly force to defend yourself — i.e., you can “stand your ground.”  That’s as it should be.  If someone comes running at you with a baseball bat, for example, you shouldn’t have to turn your back on the assailant and try to run away before you defend yourself, and you certainly shouldn’t have to let the assailant actually hit you with the bat before you can defend yourself (if you’re still conscious of course).  If you have a gun on you (legally of course), then you should be able to pull that gun before the assailant makes contact with you, and if the assailant keeps coming at you, and if you’re in legitimate fear of being killed or seriously physically harmed, then you should be able to pull the trigger.

Now obviously, if you’re the assailant, then none of the above applies.  In this case, Zimmerman apparently was advised by a 911 dispatcher not to follow Martin through the neighborhood but did so anyway.  That might’ve been dumb, but it probably wasn’t illegal.  Now, maybe Zimmerman also then initiated physical contact with Martin, and if so, Zimmerman may essentially have become an assailant and thereby forfeited the right to “stand his ground” and defend himself with deadly force.

Similarly obviously, if the assailant coming at you with a baseball bat is five years old, you wouldn’t be in legitimate fear of death or serious physical harm.  When you look at the dated, smiling photos of Martin that are all over the mainstream media, sure, it’s tough to imagine him putting you in fear of death or serious physical harm, but in the dark of night, wearing a hooded sweatshirt, it’s possible that Martin, who was reportedly over six feet tall at age 17, legitimately looked more capable of inflicting life-threatening damage in hand-to-hand combat, even before any blows were thrown.  Now fear of death or serious physical harm exists in the mind of the beholder, so the law generally requires that it be “reasonable,” i.e. that a reasonable person in the same position would’ve felt similarly (even if, in the light of day, it turns out that the fear was relatively unfounded — e.g. that the assailant’s bat was an inflatable toy instead of an actual metal or wood bat).

I could be wrong, but at this point, it’s not really sounding to me like Zimmerman simply saw a black man and opened fire — as I said from minute one of this story, it’s sounding more complicated than that.  If the gun didn’t come out until after Zimmerman had sustained some physical injuries, then he may have waited even longer than he legally was required to wait (i.e. until he had actually been physically injured) before pulling his gun.  Initially, we were getting reports that eyewitnesses had heard Martin screaming for help.  Now, we’re hearing that it may actually have been Zimmerman screaming for help.

All we really know at this point is that a teenager is dead, and that’s tragic.  We simply don’t yet have all of the necessary facts to determine what should happen next — I don’t, you don’t, the President doesn’t, and the rest of the media doesn’t.  Maybe Zimmerman’s a guilty, cold-blooded, racist murderer, or, maybe he’s an innocent idiot, or maybe, the truth lies elsewhere, perhaps somewhere in between.   That’s why we have grand juries like the one in Florida that’s going to consider all of the evidence in this case and determine whether there’s probable cause to charge Zimmerman with a crime and put him on trial.

So, as I’ve said all along, let’s nobody rush to judgment here because that’s not good for anyone, including the deceased — it’s obviously not good for the deceased if we rush to the judgment that no crime was committed, but it’s also not good for the deceased if we rush to the judgment that murder was committed just because there’s a lot of public outcry.  The former would add credence to allegations of racism in the justice system for years to come, and the latter would call the legitimacy of any subsequent conviction into question for years to come.  In other words, either error would raise serious and valid questions as to whether justice was done, and I personally prefer to feel certain of that, whatever the ultimate outcome, even if it takes us longer to get there than any of us would like.


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