Jul 14, 2013

Zimmerman, self-defense, Florida law, and negligent pundits

First, the obvious and sensible: If an armed person (a civilian, not a police officer in the course of duty) pursues another and ends up killing them, that's at least manslaughter. The pursuit is the initiation of any conflict that may arise, so it is against every logic and moral intuition that the pursuer could be entitled to a claim of self-defense.

We are told, however, that there is something weird about the law in Florida regarding self-defense, and that the jury acted properly within that strange law when it acquitted George Zimmerman. But no article I've seen so far has stated properly what it is that is strange about Florida.

You hear a lot of people, mostly casual observers, blaming Florida's "stand your ground" (SYG) law. SYG is a sick and warped self-defense doctrine that removes the duty to retreat, which is normally part of the concept of self-defense. But SYG was not invoked in the Zimmerman trial. It's a bad law, but irrelevant for this case.

More careful pundits get closer to the real issue, but still miss the mark. They tell us the prosecution failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Zimmerman did not act in self-defense. They tell us, correctly, that it has to do with the peculiar institution that is Florida law. Here is Cohen:
But this curious result says as much about Florida's judicial and legislative sensibilities as it does about Zimmerman's conduct that night. This verdict would not have occurred in every state. It might not even have occurred in any other state. But it occurred here, a tragic confluence that leaves a young man's untimely death unrequited under state law. Don't like it? Lobby to change Florida's laws.
And here is Coates:
6.) I think the message of this episode is unfortunate. By Florida law, in any violent confrontation ending in a disputed act of lethal self-defense, without eye-witnesses, the advantage goes to the living.
That all rings true, but the explanations do not add up. Self-defense is an affirmative defense, which means it is not incumbent on the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense. The burden of proof, albeit with a lower standard (generally preponderance of the evidence, or "clear and convincing", depending on the jurisdiction), is on the defendant.

The fact that Zimmerman shot Martin was never disputed, and Zimmerman's 911 call is clear evidence that Zimmerman started pursuing Martin without Martin doing anything to him (or even being aware of his existence). I don't know about murder, but the prima facie case for manslaughter (which the judge instructed the jury to consider as an alternative verdict) is complete right there. The prosecution has no burden, under standard rules, to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that self-defense does not apply.

But, it turns out, the rules in Florida—or some part of it—are anything but standard, and that that goes back to a 2006 court case, Murray v. State:
Six years ago in Murray v. State, 937 So.2d 277, 279 (Fla. 4th Dist. 2006), the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Florida ruled that once a defendant in a criminal case has introduced proof that he acted in self-defense the jury is entitled to consider the defense, and the jury may not convict the defendant unless it finds beyond a reasonable that he did not act in self-defense.
(Bolded emphasis mine.) And now what makes this relevant to the Zimmerman trial:
Last year the Fifth District Court of Appeal quoted this language from  Murray and followed the same rule in the case of  Montijo v. State, 61 So.3d 424 (Fla. 5th Dist, 2011). (...) Seminole County, where Trayvon Martin was killed, is in the  is in the Fifth Appellate District, (sic) so the rule in  Montijo is controlling unless and until the law is changed.
That's what's rotten in the state of Florida! The nature of self-defense as an affirmative defense has been turned on its head by activist judges. In effect, in Florida (or rather, its 4th and 5th Appellate Districts, but the article also points to a proposed law change that would affect the entire state), self-defense has been turned into an ordinary defense.

It would have been nice if the pundits who have written about the verdict did their homework and explained this key fact to us.

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