By John Nichols
When Florida Circuit Court Judge Debra Nelson issued the jury instructions in the second-degree murder trial of George Zimmerman, those instructions declared,
If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
Though Zimmerman’s lawyers chose to mount a traditional self-defense argument on their client’s behalf—eschewing a defense specifically based on the controversial Florida law that permits individuals who feel threatened to use deadly force even when they could retreat to safety—the role played in the case by the “stand your ground” law, and the theory that underpins it, has come into stark relief in the days since Zimmerman was acquitted.
The judge’s instructions, and a juror’s referencing of “stand your ground” in her discussion of the deliberations, serve to highlight long-term concerns about laws that permit the use of deadly force even when violence might be averted.
Civil rights groups have objected to “stand your ground” laws in Florida and dozens of other states in their responses to the Zimmerman verdict. So, too, have prominent figures such as musician Stevie Wonder, who announced Sunday that he would boycott “stand your ground” states. And on Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder told the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People convention in Orlando that states must reconsider laws that contribute to “more violence than they prevent.”
Florida’s “stand your ground” law has from the beginning been a part of the controversy over the February 26, 2012, killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was not charged for forty-four days following the shooting of the youth. Only after national protests led Florida Governor Rick Scott to appoint a special prosecutor was Zimmerman charged with second-degree murder.