The Zimmerman Verdict and the Doctrine of Self Defense

Despite your personal thoughts on the acquittal of George Zimmerman on all charges relating to the death of Trayvon Martin, a lot of people were surprised. The case occupied headlines for weeks last February after the shooting, and has done the same recently during Zimmerman’s trial for murder. While the facts of the case and its impact might very well extend beyond Martin, Zimmerman, and their immediate families, the legal questions were clear from the beginning. But, as so many legal questions are, nothing is quite as simple as it seems.

We all know that the case is not as simple as asking, “did he do it?” Of course he did, Zimmerman admitted to shooting and killing Martin. The question for the jury was centered not on whether Zimmerman killed Trayvon, but if he was justified in doing so. If Zimmerman was responding to what he perceived as a deadly threat posed by Martin, then the law justifies Zimmerman’s actions. This doctrine is fittingly called the “self-defense doctrine.”

Self-defense varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but some elements are commonly seen in all jurisdictions. For example, a typical requirement is that the person claiming self defense must have a legal right to be in the place where the attack occurs. So, someone can’t break into a home, get attacked by the homeowner, fight back, and then claim self defense. They never had a legal right to be there in the first place (and they were committing a crime at the time of the attack, which also would prevent them from claiming self-defense).

Another typical requirement is that the person claiming self defense must be reasonable in their belief that the force was necessary to prevent harm to themselves or another. For example, if someone bumps into you at a concert you can’t pull out a knife and repeatedly stab them. There was no indication that your life was threatened; it was unreasonable for you to believe that you were facing a deadly threat.

Lately, there is a lot of talk about the “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida and other states. This is actually just a slight, but important modification to the traditional self-defense doctrine. Most of the doctrine is the same, but, rather than require the person claiming self defense to attempt to retreat before using deadly force, as many jurisdictions do, it allows them to stand their ground and “meet force with force.”

Applying Florida’s self-defense doctrine to the Zimmerman case, the jury had to determine the following things in order to acquit him:

• Zimmerman had a legal right to be on the street where he shot Martin.
• Zimmerman was not engaged in criminal activity at the time he shot Martin.
• Zimmerman reasonably believed that deadly force was necessary to protect himself from death or great bodily harm.

Last week, the jury found all the above elements of self-defense were met and acquitted Zimmerman.

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The knowledgeable attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience defending individuals that have been charged with crimes, including cases involving self defense. If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.