An Arthur Hearing – a specialized bond hearing for defendants charged with non-bondable offenses – serves two purposes. On one hand, the main objective is to get a bond for your client so he or she can get out of jail. On the other hand, it is a crucial discovery device that can expose weaknesses in the state’s case.
The much talked-about George Zimmerman case made even more headlines today when it was announced that the 28-year old man accused of killing 17-year old Trayvon Martin was released from the Seminole County Jail. Charged with second-degree murder with a firearm, he would normally remain in jail without a bond on that charge. Second-degree murder carries a maximum sentence of life in prison and with the firearm enhancement, he faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years.
However, like all accused people, Mr. Zimmerman was entitled to an Arthur Hearing. At this hearing, the state must prove their case to the judge – not yet a jury – by a standard known as “proof evident, presumption great.” That is a higher burden than the trial standard of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” In so many words – the state must prove to the judge that the accused is guilty as charged and that they must remain in jail pending trial.
The state was unable to meet their burden at the Arthur Hearing. So much, in fact, that they conceded that the evidence could not support a finding of proof evident, presumption great.
Why? Because the state’s own investigator admitted, under cross-examination by Mr. Zimmerman’s attorney, that the state has no evidence as to who started the confrontation – Mr. Zimmerman or Mr. Martin?
This is not just a trivial fact. This is the fulcrum upon which this case balances. Mr. Zimmerman has claimed self-defense. Moreover, he is claiming that he is entitled to prosecutorial immunity under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. This law prohibits the criminal prosecution of a person who uses force (lethal or non-lethal) when the facts support the accused’s reasonable belief that such force was necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury.
Mr. Zimmerman claims that Mr. Martin confronted him, punched him in the nose, climbed on top of him, and repeatedly slammed his head into the pavement. Mr. Zimmerman then claims he reached for his holstered firearm and shot Mr. Martin in the chest because he believed that Mr. Martin was going to beat him to death. The state contends that Mr. Zimmerman confronted Mr. Martin, a struggle ensued, and Mr. Zimmerman committed murder.
If the state’s facts are true, Mr. Zimmerman may be guilty of second-degree murder or possibly manslaughter (a lesser-included), and is not entitled to Stand Your Ground immunity. You see, if you pick a fight with someone or commit a battery, then you cannot claim self-defense if the victim decides to fight back. George Zimmerman was not a police officer. He had no legal right to detain Trayvon Martin in any fashion. If he did try to detain the teenager, he would have been committing a crime. As the victim of possibly two crimes (false imprisonment and battery), Trayvon Martin was well within his right to stand his own ground and meet force with force. That is, if Mr. Zimmerman grabbed him or tried to prevent him from leaving, Mr. Martin was free to fight back, including punching Mr. Zimmerman in the nose and knocking him to the ground. If Mr. Zimmerman – on the receiving end of a beating – decided to use lethal force, he would not be entitled to a claim of self-defense.
If Mr. Zimmerman’s facts are true, he is not guilty of murder and may be entitled to immunity under Stand Your Ground.
However, it is the state that carries the burden of proof. They need to be able to prove beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable that Mr. Zimmerman started the confrontation. If the state cannot prove who started the confrontation, there will be a sincere lack of evidence that creates a reasonable doubt as to whether Mr. Zimmerman is guilty or not guilty.
By having the Arthur Hearing, Mr. Zimmerman’s attorney figured that out very quickly.
Remember – you don’t have to wait until after the arraignment to have an Arthur Hearing. The law states that an accused person being held without a bond is entitled to an immediate Arthur Hearing whether or not formal charges have been filed.
As you can see, an early Arthur Hearing is often the best way to get a head start on your defense. And at the same time, your client doesn’t have to spend unnecessary time in jail.