There is a difference between respecting the jury's verdict clearing George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and acknowledging the essential injustice of a Florida law that all but encourages reckless behavior. The verdict Saturday says less about race in America than it does this nation's capacity for violence. Another innocent life has been lost, and the nation searches again for some meaning beyond that the tragedy was lawful.
The jury late Saturday cleared Zimmerman of second-degree murder and a lesser charge of manslaughter in the February 2012 fatal shooting of Martin in the Central Florida city of Sanford. The neighborhood watch volunteer had ignored a police dispatcher's advice and followed the 17-year-old as he walked home from a convenience store in a gated, suburban community. Zimmerman — concerned about burglaries in the area — confronted Martin, and claimed he shot the unarmed teen in self-defense after Martin knocked him to the ground and beat his head on the concrete.
The prosecution presented an incoherent narrative at trial, but the case was hard from the start. Authorities initially sent mixed signals about whether a crime took place, and race (Martin was black, Zimmerman is Hispanic) interjected a sharp and polarizing emotion into the case. The jurors owe the nation some insight into what led to an acquittal; a fuller understanding of the verdict could ease public tensions. But a major factor was the Florida law that gives people wide latitude to use deadly force to defend themselves — even if they cause the confrontation.
While Zimmerman did not seek immunity from charges under "stand your ground," he apparently benefited from a less-discussed part of the 2005 law that expanded protections for using force in self-defense. Before the law, defendants had to show that they used every reasonable means to avoid danger before using force. But "stand your ground" removed the obligation to retreat in most circumstances. Zimmerman not only had no legal duty to retreat, the judge said in jury instructions, but the right to stand his ground and meet force with force.
In the most comprehensive effort of its kind, the Tampa Bay Times last year examined 200 "stand your ground" cases and found that the law has worked to free killers and violent attackers whose self-defense claims seem questionable at best. In nearly a third of the cases examined by the Times, defendants initiated the fight — and still went free. A former Republican state senator who sponsored the bill said the law was never meant to protect defendants who put themselves in harm's way. But the criminal justice system has been blind to that intent, as defendants merely have to show reasonable cause to fear bodily harm.
The most productive way to channel the frustration with the verdict is to change Florida's "stand your ground" law to recognize that individuals who initiate confrontations are not then immune from responsibility of the consequences. Legitimate self-defense cases would still be protected, but it would remove the near-amnesty that people have to act recklessly, putting themselves and others in harm's way. The law as it stands is an invitation to more bloodshed and heartache, and a society more divided.