Disclaimer. There is no question the George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. It is difficult to believe that Zimmerman was not motivated at least in part by racial animus. If Zimmerman had not taken the steps he did that night Trayvon Martin would be alive. The evidence included many self-serving statements by Zimmerman and in many instances he lied. Having said that, the verdict in this case was a product of the law that the jury had to deal with.
The Zimmerman trial did not turn on the Florida stand your ground law, even though a stand your ground instruction was given. Rather, it is a case of the self-defense law of Florida, which is shared by all states in the nation except Ohio. Under Florida law if a defendant asserts a prima facie case of self-defense the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense. Note, the defendant doesn't need to prove anything. The state must prove that the defendant did not act in self-defense. As we saw in the Zimmerman case that is an almost impossible burden on the state in a case where the victim is dead and there are no eyewitnesses.
Before getting to this self-defense issue, a few words on stand your ground. Essentially the stand your ground laws eliminate the duty to retreat that is otherwise required in cases of a confrontation outside of one's home. In the case of Florida's law, if a defendant seeks to invoke stand your ground for having injured or killed someone, the person can request a pretrial hearing at which a determination of the applicability of the law is made. If the person succeeds, there will be no trial. It is noteworthy that the general lack of a duty to retreat is not present if it is determined that the defendant was the instigator of the conflict.
There is some question as to why the Zimmerman defense did not seek a stand your ground hearing. If they were convinced they could win it is hard to see why they would not have done so since it certainly could have saved much of the expense of trial. One is left with the thought that maybe they were concerned about whether Zimmerman would be ruled to have been the aggressor, the one who instigated this conflict. Nevertheless, while stand your ground instructions were given in this case which made clear that Zimmerman did not have a duty to retreat, given the defense's presentation it is doubtful that it had much impact. The defense argued that he was attacked, fell to the ground, and therefore had no ability to retreat. Even if stand your ground were not applicable, the state did not appear capable of presenting any evidence indicating that Zimmerman did not try to retreat.
A recent Florida case, Falwell v Florida sets out the current state of Florida self defense law,
When self-defense is asserted, the defendant has the burden of producing
enough evidence to establish a prima facie case demonstrating the justifiable use of
force. Montijo v. State, 61 So. 3d 424, 427 (Fla. 5th DCA 2011); Fields v. State, 988
So. 2d 1185, 1188 (Fla. 5th DCA 2008); see Murray v. State, 937 So. 2d 277, 282 (Fla.
4th DCA 2006) (holding that law does not require defendant to prove self-defense to
any standard measuring assurance of truth, exigency, near certainty, or even mere probability; defendant’s only burden is to offer facts from which his resort to force could have been reasonable). Once the defendant makes a prima facie showing of self defense, the State has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense. Fields, 988 So. 2d at 1188. The burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, including the burden of proving that the defendant did not act in self-defense, never shifts from the State to the defendant. Montijo, 61 So. 3d at 427; Fields, 988 So. 2d at 1188; see Monsansky v. State, 33 So. 3d 756 (Fla. 1st DCA 2010) (explaining that defendant has burden to present sufficient evidence that he acted in self-defense in order to be entitled to jury instruction on issue, but presentation of such evidence does not change elements of offense at issue; rather, it merely requires state to present evidence that establishes beyond reasonable doubt that defendant did not act in self-defense); Murray, 937 So. 2d at 279 (explaining that defendant in trial for aggravated battery was not required to prove self-defense claim beyond reasonable doubt or by preponderance of evidence; rather, self-defense evidence needed merely leave jury with reasonable doubt about whether he was justified in using deadly force).
It is important to note that in order for this self-defense burden to shift to the prosecution the defendant only need offer a few minimal facts suggesting he acted in self-defense. As the court says the defendant is not required to "prove self-defense to any standard measuring assurance of truth, exit and see, near certainty, or even mere probability . . .."
So what did this mean in the context of the Zimmerman case? From the very beginning Zimmerman made a prima facie case for self-defense. He had injuries, however minor. And he asserted to the police initially that he had acted in self-defense. Given those bare facts, ignoring for a moment all his other statements and a few witness statements, it was the state's burden to prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" that he did not act in self-defense.
In analyzing the evidence offered at trial, virtually all of the statements made by Zimmerman after the night of the shooting could have been disregarded by the jury. It was very clear that they were self-serving statements, that he had a strong motivation to lie, and that because he was caught in numerous lies his credibility was minimal. It was also reasonable for the jury to give Rachel Jeantel's testimony considerable weight. That testimony indicated that Zimmerman initiated the incident, he followed Martin, and Martin reacted with concern, if not outright fear. But her testimony ends minutes before the shooting. The testimony covering the remaining minutes is conflicting. Without going over it all, there is testimony indicating that Martin was on top of Zimmerman and contrary testimony indicating Zimmerman was on top of Martin. There is conflicting testimony as to who was screaming. There were injuries to Zimmerman and all evidence indicates that Martin was shot at close range.
If this were a case where Zimmerman had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt or even prove with a simple preponderance of the evidence that he acted in self-defense, it is not unlikely that he would have been convicted. However he didn't have to show anything. The state had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he did not act in self defense.
This case is about race because there is every indication that George Zimmerman would not have followed Martin that night but for his race. There is also every indication that Zimmerman was, at best, a totally irresponsible gun owner Who had dreams of police glory and was prone to vigilantism. It also appears that the Sanford Police Department did not initially give this case the type of scrutiny it deserved. It may also be possible that some of the jurors were unable to exclude race from their consideration. Having said all those things however the outcome of this case was a result of the law. Moving forward, it is time for a serious examination of the state of the law of self-defense in this country. The killing of Trayvon Martin has made that abundantly clear.