In a few days the trial of this century will begin. A trial involving a crime that sparked a nationwide debate on gun rights and self-defense.
In February 2012, in a community outside of Orlando, George Zimmerman, a half-white, half-Hispanic part-time college student, called 911 to report a suspicious person. This person, according to Zimmerman, appeared to be high on drugs, wandering aimlessly around his gated town home community, apparently looking into cars and walking through the alleys that separated the units.
Zimmerman was the captain of the neighborhood watch. A meaningless position really, nothing more than a set of eyes and ears that had no legal authority. But Zimmerman was carrying a gun. Not necessarily in his capacity as a neighborhood watch captain - that practice was forbidden by neighborhood watch regulations. But in his capacity as a Florida citizen.
For you yankees, Florida is a right-to-carry state. That means that if you have no felony convictions, no outstanding domestic violence restraining orders, and have never been adjudged insane or mentally incompetent by a court of law, you can obtain a concealed weapon permit if you pass a handgun safety course and a criminal background check conducted by the Florida Department of Agriculture.
It was Zimmerman's legal right to carry his firearm. But with his gun in a concealed hip holster, he watched as this shadowy figure - the 17 year-old black teenager from Miami Gardens who would later be identified as Trayvon Martin - meandered down the street.
For whatever reason, Zimmerman alerted the 911 dispatcher that he intended to follow the boy.
“We don’t need you to do that,” the dispatcher replied.
What happened from that point forward - or least what can be proven about what happened from that point forward - will determine Zimmerman's conviction for second-degree murder or his controversial but perhaps legally accurate acquittal.
It took weeks for an arrest to occur. The night of the fatal shooting Zimmerman had serious facial injuries.
His nose was broken. The back of his head was bloody and had apparently been slammed against the pavement.
Zimmerman told police that he followed the boy - in spite of the 911 dispatcher’s advice - but then turned around. It was at this point, Zimmerman swore, that he had stopped following the boy and was just walking back to his car when Martin - a ropey six-foot-two teenager on suspension from school - approached Zimmerman and punched him in the nose, knocking him to the ground.
Zimmerman alleged that Martin mounted him MMA-style and started raining down haymakers, slamming his head into the pavement. Zimmerman told police he was unable to get out from under the teenager and as he screamed for help, Martin placed his hand over Zimmerman’s nose and mouth and told him, “you’re gonna die tonight.”
Fearing that the teenager would beat him to death or at least seriously injure him, Zimmerman slid his hand into his jacket and retrieved his concealed firearm - a Kel-Tec PF-9; a lightweight nine-millimeter locked-breech semi-automatic pistol. Preferred for its “flat” design, preventing the telltale bulge that sometimes comes with concealed carry.
Zimmerman was not arrested on the night he shot and killed Trayvon Martin with a single round to the chest. That’s because if his account was to believed, he was one-hundred percent justified in doing what he did.
Under Florida law,
“A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”
Fla. Stat. § 776.013(3).
By the plain wording of the law known as “Stand Your Ground,” if Zimmerman’s account was to be believed, then he was: (1) not engaged in unlawful activity; (2) attacked in a place where he had the right to be; and (3) had the right to stand his ground with lethal force as he believed it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm.
If Zimmerman’s account was to believed.
Conflicts in witness statements and the fairly unresolved mystery of whose screams were really heard on a neighbor’s 911 call led the State Attorney’s Office to its conclusion:
Zimmerman never stopped pursuing Martin. In fact he approached Martin, unprovoked, and demanded to know what the teenager was doing in his neighborhood. Clearly this thuggish-looking black teenager with the hoodie on was up to no good. Clearly he was casing houses or looking to smash a car window, maybe snatch a GPS or some change from the ashtray.
After all, there had been a rash of burglaries in the town home community as of late, which may have explained Zimmerman’s heightened state of awareness. And this kid - the ubiquitous black male who seemed to match the description of every suspect in every crime in every neighborhood on the face of the earth - was quite possibly the culprit.
The prosecution believes that Zimmerman’s confrontation with Martin was not gentle. He was heated, he was nose-to-nose with the kid, who was likely scared of the older, stockier Zimmerman. Maybe Zimmerman tried to physically restrain Martin or so impeded his freedom that you could have charged Zimmerman with false imprisonment right then and there. Either way, Martin - as the victim in this encounter - had the right to use reasonable, non-lethal self-defense to get this guy off of him. At that point, the two began to tussle and Zimmerman pulled his gun. The aggressor in a non-lethal confrontation, Zimmerman had no legal right to shoot Martin. His actions, should this account be true, would be a slam-dunk, open-and-shut case of second-degree murder.
Over the course of the next several weeks, both scenarios will play out in court. The state will portray Zimmerman as an unrepentant racist, a wannabe cop whose neighborhood watch position was a source of exhilaration. Their evidence will attempt to prove that Zimmerman profiled Martin, confronted him, and without cause or legal justification, shot the kid dead.
Some of the evidence favorable to the state? The fact that Zimmerman was pursuing Martin. In what was single-handedly the worst decision that George Zimmerman ever made, the evidence is undisputed that Zimmerman initially followed Martin despite the 911 dispatcher warning him not to. Poor judgment by Zimmerman, of course. Had he remained in his car and waited for the police to arrive, Zimmerman would be a free man and Trayvon Martin would still be alive. However, poor judgment alone doesn’t make you criminally liable. The state still needs to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman followed Martin and kept following him up until he confronted him with force or the threat of force.
Also favorable to the state, the fact that Martin was unarmed. Now remember that self-defense in Florida is situational. If you reasonably believe that you need to use lethal force, you can. Whether or not your attacker is armed. There are many situations in which it would be perfectly acceptable for an armed person to use lethal force against an unarmed person. A hundred-pound woman being attacked by a three hundred-pound man? Of course. Florida’s self-defense jury instruction requires jurors to consider the physical limitations and physical capabilities of the parties involved in a confrontation. However, the human element cannot ever be ignored. For many, there is just something downright distasteful about a grown man shooting an unarmed child.
And finally, the state will introduce expert testimony from an audio engineer who analyzed a recording from a neighbor’s 911 call depicting screams, followed by gunfire. The expert will testify that the person screaming for help is not George Zimmerman.
Irrespective of legal guilt in this case, what hurts Zimmerman the most is that this incident was so damn preventable. If he would have just stayed in his car, we’ve all been thinking to ourselves for the past fifteen months.
And while the defense will try to test the limits of the court’s pretrial orders regarding the admissibility of Trayvon Martin’s less-than-stellar reputation, I just don’t think it will be enough to overcome the emotional factors of this case.
However, I do not believe that the jury will make a finding that Zimmerman intended to kill Martin. I believe they will split the baby and go for a guilty-lesser of aggravated manslaughter. The judge will sentence Zimmerman to the max - 30 years in Florida state prison with a 25-year mandatory minimum for the use of the firearm during the commission of the crime.
Eric Matheny is a criminal defense attorney and former Miami-Dade prosecutor representing clients in criminal defense matters in Miami-Dade County, Florida, and Broward County, Florida.