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Should you have the legal right to use force – even deadly force if it seems necessary – as self-defense in reaction to what you may perceive as a serious threat?
On February 26, 2012, an unarmed 17-year-old African American male named Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida by a 28-year-old volunteer community watch coordinator named George Zimmerman. Martin had been walking from a convenience store when he was spotted by Zimmerman, who contacted the local police department to reporting the youth’s allegedly suspicious behavior. Shortly thereafter, there was a confrontation between the two that ended with Zimmerman fatally shooting Martin. When the police arrived on the scene, Zimmerman told them that he acted in self-defense. He was handcuffed and brought into custody, but the police did not actually formally arrest him, saying they didn’t find sufficient evidence to contradict his assertion of self-defense, a claim supported by the state attorney’s office.
Like a number of other states, including California, Florida has a statewide stand-your-ground law, which allows citizens in public spaces to use force in self-defense when there is reasonable belief of a threat, without an obligation to first back down or retreat. Stand-your-ground can serve as a defense or immunity to criminal charges or civil suit.
Florida, though, has one of the boldest versions of this law, allowing citizens in public spaces to lawfully use deadly force if “he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.”
While Zimmerman (who is half white and half Latino), claims that he felt seriously threatened by Martin, and thus acted lawfully, the issue has generated major criticism of Florida’s stand-your-ground law. It has also ignited significant racial tensions, with civil rights advocates claiming that the incident was blatantly racially motivated. In protests that have since taken place in cities around the country, many have expressed outrage over Florida’s law and the way the case has been handled by the Sanford police department and the state attorney’s office. There are ongoing demands for a full criminal prosecution of Zimmerman, and wider investigation into the law itself.
PBS NewsHour segment Killing of Fla. Teen Sheds Light on State’s Law – Mar. 19, 2012
Demonstrators gathered in Sanford, Fla. Monday to demand the arrest of the neighborhood watch member who shot an unarmed black teenager, after 911 calls from the shooting were released. Ray Suarez and The Miami Herald’s Frances Robles discuss why a Florida law could make filing charges against Zimmerman more difficult.