Stand Your Ground: An Explanation of the Law

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of


The Stand Your Ground law (specifically the version used in Florida, location of the Zimmerman trial) has been talked about and referred to a lot in recent weeks, and especially after George Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict. The problem, though, is that many news outlets have not adequately defined and described the law. In order to fully understand the events that led up to the trial, the crime itself, and the verdict, one needs to understand that law. So, this post is to help explain the law for readers.

According to

Normally, a citizen has a duty to retreat when confronted with what they perceive to be deadly force. The Stand Your Ground doctrine mostly removes that, meaning citizens who feel threatened are no longer required to try to quell a situation first before having the right to use deadly force in self-defense.

There are three parts to Florida’s Stand Your Ground law:

  1. It states that a person is presumed to have reasonable fear of imminent death or great bodily harm when using defensive force if an intruder has broken into his or her home or vehicle and is justified in using force.
  2. It states that a person does not have a duty to retreat if he or she believes death or bodily harm is imminent.
  3. It provides immunity from criminal prosecution and civil action for justifiable use of force.

The parts of the law that directly apply to the Zimmerman case are the 2nd and 3rd. In the time period immediately after Trayvon Martin’s death, Zimmerman was initially not charged with a crime because he was deemed, based on his description of the altercation and shooting of Trayvon, to be innocent of any crime. He claimed that he felt so threatened by Trayvon (although he is older and much larger in stature than Trayvon) that, after trying to fight back, he simply had to shoot Trayvon to death. Under the 2nd part of the Stand Your Ground law, this is permissible. Therefore, based on the 3rd part of the law, he was immune to a criminal prosecution of Trayvon’s death. He was only charged with a crime after the outpouring of public frustration and anger over the law.

It is very interesting to note that while Zimmerman’s defense team never used Stand Your Ground as a criminal defense in court, the judge instructed the jury to keep the law in mind anyway, causing at least one juror’s decision to be swayed by it. If that doesn’t constitute injustice, I don’t know what does.

Also important to note: this law was enacted with copious amounts of support from the National Rifle Association under a Republican-dominated state legislature in Florida. Florida was the first state to enact the law in 2005. In all, 22 states have since enacted this kind of legislation, according to

In any event, this “shoot first, ask questions later” law is unjust and should be removed from the books immediately.


The George Zimmerman Trial: We Want a Rematch

Protesters after Zimmerman not guilty verdict (courtesy of the

Protesters after Zimmerman not guilty verdict (courtesy of, AP Photo/David Goldman)


According to 

The Justice Department said Sunday it is looking into the shooting death of Trayvon Martin to determine whether federal prosecutors will file criminal civil rights charges now that George Zimmerman has been acquitted in the state case.

For civil rights advocates and anyone else passionate about this case, this is welcome news.

George Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict was a sickening shock to many people, yet not wholly unexpected. To many watching the news at home, the killing of Trayvon Martin was a matter of race, with “self-defense” being merely a side issue. Yet, the trial was conducted in the complete reverse. It was revealed on the Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC) that the judge dismissed any mention or evidence pertaining to racism being a factor in Trayvon Martin’s death!

Is it any wonder, then, that Zimmerman was found not guilty? It is quite likely that if both Zimmerman (who is half Hispanic and half white) and Trayvon (black) were both white, the incident would have appeared very differently. If, for instance, Zimmerman had seen a hooded figure walking late at night and knew at some point, before any physical contact, that Trayvon was white ( in our hypothetical case), and had confronted him, what would’ve happened? Perhaps Zimmerman would have not done anything and went home. Perhaps he would have just asked Trayvon what he was doing, then called the police. Or, maybe he would have asked  Trayvon what he was doing, heard an unsatisfactory response, and somehow ended up in a physical fight. Let’s say that, for whatever reason, Zimmermann shot Trayvon during the brawl. Then the case goes to trial. In this scenario, the case would very well have centered around Zimmerman’s self-defense claim.

Self-defense arguments in court are successful only when the accused person can prove that he used force (a gun, for instance) against another person because he was in fear for his life and could find no way to escape. The the use of force must be a last resort. Self-defense is also only provable if the amount of force used to defend oneself is sufficient to end or pause the attack, but not meant to kill the attacker. So intent is also relevant. If the intention of the one being attacked is to kill the other person, that is not self-defense. If the intent is to simply stop the attack, then that is true self-defense.

So, in our hypothetical case, let’s say Zimmerman really was afraid. First of all, Zimmerman in not a small man, so the idea that he was truly frightened by a very young, skinny kid just isn’t plausible. The fact that this large, grown man was also armed makes the “frightened” scenario even less plausible. What is also problematic about his self-defense claim is that true self-defense requires that the person being threatened use only necessary force to end the attack long enough to escape, not to kill. Was it necessary, then, for Zimmerman to have shot Trayvon to death, or did he intend to kill him? It seems he did. Even the Stand Your Ground law shouldn’t have helped Zimmerman here because he chose not to use it in the trial. He used Stand Your Ground initially with success, which allowed him to go free without a trial. But once he was officially charged, his legal team used self-defense as his reason for the killing.

My blogger friend, The Secular Jurist, recently posted an article about Stand Your Ground and it’s influence on the trial. He mentions in his post that Judge Debra Nelson issued the jury these instructions during the trial:

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.

That is the definition of the Stand Your Ground law. What’s odd is that, though Zimmerman’s lawyers didn’t use that as a defense, the judge instructed the jury to consider it as a defense anyway!! And, lo and behold, they did, according to

While the defense did not use the Stand Your Ground law in Zimmerman’s trial, Juror B37, the only juror to speak out, told CNN that law was considered, along with the self-defense law, when the jury made its decision.

Race also very much complicates things. Because Zimmeriman is not black and Trayvon was, the question of intent becomes even more muddied. If Zimmerman is racist, then his mindset was not just on protecting his neighborhood (which he claimed in the trial), but on keeping “dangerous” black people out. So when Zimmerman saw this hooded black kid in his neighborhood, he wasn’t just thinking “intruder.” It is extremely likely that Zimmerman would not have physically confronted Trayvon at all, other than maybe asking for his name, if hadn’t been black. The fact that it become physical and that one person ended up dead says to me that Zimmerman’s actions went above and beyond what was necessary in every moment of that incident, and that his actions were excessive because of Trayvon’s race.

Judges are smart people (we assume). They have law degrees and usually have been lawyers for several years before becoming judges. So what went into the decision to exclude race from the trial proceedings? What were the judge’s motivations? Only she knows for sure, but she must have known that the task of obtaining a guilty verdict would be made more difficult by the exclusion of race. So why? And how could a decision like that even be allowed in a trial? Hopefully, the Dept. of Justice will consider that when they decide whether on not to take this case.