The World – and the Legal Profession – Waits and Watches in the Trayvon Martin Case
For the better part of the last seven weeks, America has been riveted by the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17 year old African-American male, gunned down in Sanford, Florida, by “neighborhood watchman” George Zimmerman. Trayvon’s death and the circumstances surrounding the shooting has led to countless marches supporting Trayvon’s family; heated debate regarding racial tensions and gun control; public figures wearing hoodies in support of Trayvon; and the President of the United States making a personal comment on the case.
Last week Special Prosecutor Angela Corey (the prosecutor appointed to the case after the local prosecutor and police chief inexplicably stepped aside) formally charged George Zimmerman with Second Degree Murder. Much was made of Ms. Corey’s decision to charge Zimmerman in the manner she did, avoiding a Florida grand jury and choosing not to charge Murder in the First Degree or, in the alternative, lesser included charges such as Manslaughter. Ms. Corey made this decision based on the investigation by police officers, detectives and investigators from the State and Federal Government. Now Trayvon’s parents and friends along with supporters for George Zimmerman will wait for the trial of Zimmerman to begin. On a larger scale, the nation awaits for issues such as gun control and race relations and hoodies and Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” (hereinafter SYG) law to take center stage in the trial of a cop buff who gunned down an unarmed 17 year old kid.
Some in the media and some who hold public positions have compared Trayvon’s death to that of Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo in New York City. For certain, all of these deaths were avoidable as Bell, Diallo and Martin were unarmed when they were killed. Bell and Diallo were killed by trained NYC cops; Trayvon Martin was killed by someone who held a “neighborhood watchman” position and had some level of police training. Race, guns, and the death of an unarmed black man at the hands of a law enforcement agent are all inescapable, tragic similarities.
From a criminal defense standpoint however, there are some glaring differences between the Bell / Diallo circumstances and those surrounding Trayvon Martin’s death and the eventual arrest of his killer.Frankly, the differences start and end with SYG.
Here in New York and in approximately 30 other states across the nation SYG, as it is written and interpreted in Florida, simply does not exist. While each state has a version of a self-defense law, Florida’s SYG law gives individuals a broad range of latitude to use deadly force, rather than retreat when having the opportunity to do so. In New York for example, a duty to retreat before using deadly force exists under most circumstances. Furthermore, nine times out of ten in New York, the self-defense claim is presented by the criminal defense attorney at the grand jury stage of the proceeding and, if necessary, at the trial. It is left for a judge or a jury to decide if it was self-defense or if it was a criminal act of homicide. In Florida, incredibly, SYG grants immunity from prosecution or arrest to a suspect who successfully invokes a SYG claim.
Allow us to indulge in a brief comparison.If Trayvon Martin was killed in the same manner, under the same circumstances here in Nassau County (putting aside the likelihood that in New York George Zimmerman would never have been issued a carry-permit), the investigation would have included detectives and prosecutors from the outset.The decision to make an arrest would have rested jointly with the police department and the District Attorney’s Office.Prosecutors and defense attorneys would have been involved from the outset and, more likely than not, the matter would have been presented to a Grand Jury and citizens of Nassau County would have decided on the charges to hand down.
It’s disconcerting to say the least that it was purely up to the Sanford Police Chief to determine whether an arrest should be made in the shooting death of an unarmed 17 year old male at the hands of an armed neighborhood watchman.It was even more shocking when Police Chief Bill Lee insisted that his officers were “prohibited from making an arrest” based on his investigation and the facts and circumstances as uncovered by the Sanford Police Department.Subsequently, after weeks of national scrutiny, a special prosecutor decided that the original investigating law enforcement agency was WRONG, and Second Degree Murder charges were issued.
From a criminal defense stand-point, frankly, it’s hard to imagine more inconsistencies to work with than those created by the agencies responsible for prosecuting George Zimmerman. Not only do the defense attorneys for Zimmerman have this very pro-suspect law in place, they have the chief of the police department in charge of investigating the case saying simply, this is a SYG case and no arrest was warranted. Yes, murder charges were eventually brought, and yes, it looks like George Zimmerman will stand trial. However, not only will the prosecution have to deal with a pro-suspect self-defense law in SYG, it will have to deal with the initial police investigators testifying that their investigation led them to believe that no crime was committed.
As this blog is being posted, George Zimmerman has just been released on bail. Zimmerman will await his trial in the comfort of his own home or the place of his choosing, a luxury most suspects charged with second degree murder are not afforded. In truth, only two people know the facts and circumstances that led to Trayvon’s death on that late February evening. Unfortunately, Trayvon is gone and cannot recount his perceptions of what happened. And Zimmerman, like everyone accused of a crime, is presumed innocent and has no obligation to offer any statements as to what happened. Like it or not, he has a state law that affords him a great deal of cover.
Was Trayvon murdered in cold blood? Is this truly a self-defense case? Could it be murder here in New York but self-defense in Florida under SYG? The answers may differ, depending on whether you ask the Sanford Police Department or the team prosecuting the man who killed Trayvon. But the most glaring tragedy of this case, and the one none of us can forget, is that Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old unarmed kid with a Snapple and a bag of Skittles, is gone forever.