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Despite backlash, 'stand your ground' laws did not apply to Zimmerman case

Wanda Stuart, 58, lowers her head in prayer at the beginning of a gathering at the St. Petersburg Branch of the NAACP at 1501 16th St. S in St. Petersburg on Monday evening. In background on right is her granddaughter, Daylanna Cunningham, 6. About 100 people attended the discussion and meeting regarding the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin.
Published Jul. 16, 2013

A juror in the George Zimmerman trial broke her silence Monday night on national TV to say Florida's "stand your ground" laws played a role in the decision to acquit the Sanford neighborhood watch captain.

But the woman, identified only as Juror B37, also said she had "no doubt" Zimmerman feared for his life in the final moments of his struggle with Trayvon Martin, and that was the definitive factor in the verdict. The juror spoke to CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 on Monday.

That matched the assessment of legal experts who earlier Monday were describing the verdict on Saturday as the result of successful, garden-variety self-defense arguments that could sway a jury in any state.

Though these observers said Florida's expanded self-defense law, which says citizens can "stand their ground" rather than retreat in the face of a deadly threat has emboldened citizens to take unnecessary risks and led to an increase in homicides, they detected little impact on the Zimmerman case.

Zimmerman, charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, waived his right for a pretrial immunity hearing, allowed under "stand your ground" law. Although the words "stand your ground" were seldom heard during the five-week trial, protesters have called for the repeal of "stand your ground" in light of the verdict.

Experienced prosecutors and law professors agreed that they think jurors were swayed by basic self-defense arguments made by Zimmerman's attorneys: Regardless of who initiated the encounter, at the moment the deadly shot was fired, Zimmerman feared for his life.

"I can see a similar outcome in jurisdictions without 'stand your ground' for the mere fact that the best eyewitness to counter the defense strategy was dead," said Darren Lenard Hutchinson, a professor of race and civil rights law at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. "That's the terrible reality. The jurors saw a bloodied nose and that may have been enough for them."

Jurors were also instructed by the judge that if they had "reasonable doubt" about the second-degree murder or manslaughter charges against Zimmerman, they had no choice but to find him not guilty.

Bob Dekle, a retired prosecutor who also teaches at UF Law, said, " 'Stand your ground' turns out to have been a huge red herring (in the Zimmerman case.) The result very well could have been the same prior to enactment of the law."

Dekle, a critic of "stand your ground" provisions, said that even if a person initiates a fight, they always have had the right to defend themselves if they're in fear of death or great bodily harm. "You don't forfeit your right to do whatever you need to do to live simply because you've been a jerk," Dekle said.

Those comments are no surprise to Sen. Tom Lee, Republican from Brandon, who was president of the Florida Senate when stand your ground legislation was passed in 2005.

"I have yet to talk to anyone who believes the stand your ground provisions were remotely relevant to this case," said Lee, who believes the law is working the way it was intended. "For me, this case centered on your right to defend yourself."

Lee said that's why the Sanford police did not immediately arrest Zimmerman after he acknowledged killing Martin in February 2012 and why the prosecutor initially decided not to prosecute.

"But once the prosecution decided to try the case, the questions were: Did Zimmerman have a right to defend himself? Was there an environment that evening that gave a reasonable person belief he or she was in danger? That's traditional self-defense," Lee said. "He still had a right to defend himself because he was in fear of his life."

"Stand your ground" may have had little impact on the criminal case, but it might have repercussions if Martin's parents bring a civil suit against Zimmerman. If Zimmerman was granted immunity under the law by a civil court judge, the Martins would have to pay his legal fees.

"I can imagine protesters thinking a civil suit would be the next-best remedy, " said Susan Rozelle, professor at Stetson University College of Law. "But the family is unfairly burdened by the fear of having to pay costs if it loses."

Though there was some pressure to revamp the stand your ground laws when the Zimmerman case first became public, that pressure quickly dissipated. A task force created by Gov. Rick Scott to review the law included many of the statute's supporters and resulted in few meaningful proposals. Even those, however, failed to get a hearing during the last legislative session, as lawmakers cited the ongoing legal case against Zimmerman and more pressing issues as an excuse for shelving any discussion of the subject.

State Sen. Chris Smith, a Democrat from Fort Lauderdale, hopes the public outcry over the Zimmerman verdict will change that, especially if jurors say it had an impact on their deliberation.

"That statute was poorly written; any reasonable society would want it changed," Smith said. "People are looking for action steps, they're shocked by the outcome. Now we need to push the Legislature to at least have this debate."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds and staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.

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