More on the Zimmerman/Martin case

Two of the best articles I’ve read on the George Zimmerman verdict, which I blogged about Sunday, are by Will Wilkinson and Popehat’s Ken White. Wilkinson’s conclusion:

In Texas you can get away with shooting someone to death if they’re running away with your property. That’s insane, and it’s easy to see how a law like that rigs the system in favour of people with a lot of property—a class that remains disproportionately white and male. However, on the whole, our criminal-justice system is so frightfully racist because it’s too easy for prosecutors, not because it’s too hard. Of course, in a racist society, rules that help defendants are going to help the most privileged defendants the most, and that’s maddening. But that shouldn’t stop us from recognising that the least privileged, the most oppressed, the most discriminated against, are far and away most likely to stand accused. That’s why I suspect that a legal system making it harder for the likes of Mr Zimmerman to get away with it would be a system of even more outrageous racial inequity.

White reaches a similar conclusion, drawing on his 13 years of experience as a criminal defense attorney:

It’s tragic that Trayvon Martin was killed, and I believe that George Zimmerman bears moral responsibility for his death. The banners of racism that have unfurled in defense of Zimmerman repulse me. I would be damn worried about my kids if I lived in George Zimmeran’s neighborhood. But ultimately I am more afraid of the state — and more afraid of a society that thinks case outcomes should depend upon collective social judgment — than I am of the George Zimmermans of the world. Critics might say that view reflects privilege, in that as an affluent white guy I am far less likely to be shot by someone like Zimmerman. Perhaps. But I am also vastly less likely to be jailed, or be the target of law enforcement abuse tolerated by social consensus. Weakening the rights of the accused — clamoring for the conviction of those we feel should be convicted — is a damnfool way to help the oppressed.

One thing I didn’t cover in my post on Sunday was the issue of stand your ground laws. From what I could tell, if Florida lacked a stand your ground law, the outcome of the case is unlikely to have been any different. The stand your ground law was included in the jury instructions for the case, but I’ve seen no other evidence it played an important role in the case. In particular, Zimmerman claimed that Martin had pinned him to the ground making him unable to escape, and making the stand your ground law not necessary for Zimmerman’s defense.

That said, just because stand your ground laws didn’t play an important role in this particular case doesn’t mean repealing them wouldn’t be a good idea. And while I’m still worried about what other ill-conceived legal changes could come out of the Zimmerman case, repealing stand your ground laws seems sensible to me. You can read one case against them here.

One thing I’d to the things people have been saying against stand your ground laws is that standing your ground in a confrontation increases the chances you will get hurt. Sam Harris wrote an excellent article about self-defense two years ago that I recommend everyone read. Basically, Harris recommends avoiding situations that are likely to turn violent, and running if you find yourself in one. According to Harris, the part about running applies even, perhaps especially, in home invasions. That’s for your own safety, castle doctrine be damned.

The one thing I wonder about regarding Harris’ article, in retrospect, is that he seems to advocate that if you believe someone is about to attack you, it’s reasonable to launch a preemptive surprise attack and then run away. (“Hit first, fast, and hard—and run,” he writes.) Does anyone know if that could legally be considered justifiable self-defense, with or without stand your ground laws?

Matt Yglesias wrote an article, which I agree with, arguing that Zimmerman probably would’ve ended up in jail if he hadn’t been able to raise the money for a competent defense. Some people read this article as saying Zimmerman should’ve ended up in jail, but I took it the other way, as arguing that we really need more money for public defenders, and generally need to do more to ensure that poor defendants get a fair trial. (Yglesias’ article also raises another question, which I don’t know how to answer: what do we do about truly wealthy criminals, who can afford to hire defense teams that would make Zimmerman’s look like a joke?)

The last thing I have to say about the reaction to the Zimmerman trial is that it provided a healthy shock to my view of human nature. It’s a reminder that ideas about the rights of the accused are highly unnatural to human minds. When raised in a culture that values them, we mostly just pay lip service to them until we encounter with someone we really want to see punished. This ought to be a terrifying realization, because the rights of the accused is one of the key things that separates the US government from brutal dictatorships.

Of course, I know that separation is not complete, and the realization about human nature was not new to me. I’ve long looked on in horror at much of what the US government does in the name of fighting “terrorism” (and the even more extreme policies advocated by some on the American right, which thankfully the government has not adopted). Relevant: a week before the Zimmerman verdict came out, this article about another dead teenager ran in the New York times.

No, the shock of seeing Greta Christian lose her shit over the Zimmerman verdict came from seeing these all too human tendencies expressed by someone who I would have guessed would rise above them. And when, in her later blog post on the case, she refuses to acknowledge that anyone could have any reason to disagree with her on the Zimmerman case (even slightly hint at disagreeing with her), aside from disagreeing with her about “whether a young black man should be able to buy candy at a convenience store without being hunted and killed”–that too is all too human. And the fact that it is so human should frighten us all.

  • http://knowthesilence.blogspot.com/ Joshua

    “The one thing I wonder about regarding Harris’ article, in retrospect, is that he seems to advocate that if you believe someone is about to attack you, it’s reasonable to launch a preemptive surprise attack and then run away. (“Hit first, fast, and hard—and run,” he writes.) Does anyone know if that could legally be considered justifiable self-defense, with or without stand your ground laws?”

    It’s hard to know what kind of situation he had in mind with the “strike first” comment; it’s not clear from the context. Legality would depend on the situation and how much of a threat was being posed by the would-be assailant. Have they actually threatened you verbally (“I’m gonna fuck you up”), made threatening gestures (acting like they’ll hit you to make you flinch), shown a weapon, that sort of thing. Do don’t need to take the first hit in order for it to be self defense, but you can’t beat on somebody just for looking at you funny or for insulting you. It gets kind of murky, especially from the point of view of the cops who show up after the fact.

  • Patrick

    “The stand
    your ground law was included in the jury instructions for the case, but
    I’ve seen no other evidence it played an important role in the case.”

    I think this is incorrect. I know it is becoming the common wisdom, but, well, I question the motivations that have led to that.

    The police explicitly stated that the stand your ground law (using the phrase “stand your ground law” to refer to the law that was called that when it was passed) was the reason they didn’t arrest Zimmerman. Which is the entire reason this case became a national issue.

    Now you’re probably right that the case’s result would have been the same, if you hold constant the fact that the policy did not treat Zimmerman like a real suspect. And you could reasonably conclude that the police would have treated Zimmerman like a VIP (and Trayvon like he was worthless) with or without the stand your ground law.

    But… had Zimmerman been interrogated properly like a real suspect by police who didn’t immediately take his word for everything that happened that night, this case could in fact have been different. And stand your ground is the stated reason for why that happened.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

      That sounds plausible. People interrogated by the police often end up badly incriminating themselves, which is why defense attorneys tell their clients to never ever talk to the police.

      • http://knowthesilence.blogspot.com/ Joshua

        Yep. Any self defense instructor worth their salt will teach that as well.

    • UWIR

      Whether the police believe everything you say and whether there’s a stand your ground law are two completely different issues. It’s truly bizarre how people were talking about SYG as if the law says that all you have to do is invoke your Right To Self Defense and all police investigations must cease. It’s not a magic Get out of Jail Free Card. Even with SYG laws, the factual issues on which a defense is based are still subject to challenge by the prosecution. SYG cannot possibly be the reason for the police accepting what Zimmerman said, because before they decided that SYG applied, they would first have to accept Zimmerman’s factual assertions on which a SYG defense would be based. That’s just basic logic.

      Furthermore, the assertions regarding SYG go way beyond merely the tortured interpretation that you are presenting. For instance, in the Greta Christina thread, we have this:

      Comment #69 by allencdexter

      “That jury didn’t have to follow anything the judge instructed if they thought the law behind it, in this case “stand your ground,” was a crock.”

      Clearly, allencdexter is asserting that the jury felt that SYG was crucial in Zimmerman’s defense, which is a flat-out lie. So apparently, in Greta Christina’s world, the verdict so awful that not only does she have no need to discuss it “calmly and without anger, and treat people we disagree with respectfully”, her crowd has no need to discuss it honestly, either.

  • Sam

    From Greta’s blog:

    “I am sick to fucking death of the idea that “freethought” means “we have to treat all ideas as worthy of consideration, and debate them calmly and without anger, and treat people we disagree with respectfully.”

    Well Greta, I’m sick to death of people who are unable to discuss ideas dispassionately. So I guess we hate each other. Good.

  • Kevin

    “Does anyone know if that could legally be considered justifiable self-defense, with or without stand your ground laws?”

    There are a couple situations where I think his advice would be apt. I think it would be interpreted by a jury as reasonable to defend yourself whenever someone commits a crime using or implying force.It’s one of those “reasonable person” tests so it’s up to the jury whether they buy that a reasonable person would determine that the other person was a threat, but I think it’s safe to say that violent crime == threat.

    If someone grabs you by your arm and tries to take you somewhere (false imprisonment/kidnapping), strike hard with your free hand and when they let go to defend their face, run. If in an alley, someone is blocking your escape route, and they demand your money (robbery), walk passively towards them, strike hard just to get them out of the way, and then run. If they assault you, or in other words “made threatening gestures (acting like they’ll hit you to make you flinch)” and they are blocking your escape route (this is essential, otherwise you’re just fighting). Burglary would apply as well under the castle doctrine. If someone else is in trouble, then the same could be said, approach passively, strike hard to get them free, then run. It’s hard to say whether it could be applied when not faced with a crime.

    The spirit to self-defense is that you are facing a legitimate threat and don’t have a way to de-escalate the situation and hence have to use force to protect yourself. If someone is threatening you, then in most cases, you need to leave. If someone is trying to fight you and you have the option to leave, then you should. Otherwise, you are just fighting. Don’t return with a gun (which is why Marissa Alexander’s case is not analogous to Zimmerman’s), don’t hit them while they’re down (i.e. after they’re no longer a threat and you have an opportunity to de-escalate the situation by leaving), just leave (and go straight to the police station).

    One of the links that Harris references is fairly good at outlining what is and what is not self-defense: http://nononsenseselfdefense.com/

  • UWIR

    It’s Christina, not Christian.

    I found it bizarre that thread was referred to as a “conversation”. No, Greta, if you announce at the beginning that you’re going to ban anyone who says anything you don’t like, that’s not a “conversation”, that’s a circle-jerk. If you wanted to say your piece and not have anyone disagree with you, why not just disable comments? Sheesh. The thread also seemed to be steeped in false dichotomy: either you think that Zimmerman is a complete monster who had no justification for anything he did and the verdict was a complete travesty, or you think Martin’s life was worthless.

  • DavidMHart

    “what do we do about truly wealthy criminals, who can afford to hire defense teams that would make Zimmerman’s look like a joke?”

    Here’s a superficially elegant-looking solution, though I’m sure you can pick some holes in it:

    Rule 1: the government must pay exactly the same sum of money towards public defenders as it does towards the prosecution in each case.

    Rule 2: an accused individual who wishes to hire their own defence must contribute the same sum of money towards the prosecution as they do towards their own defence lawyers.

    If this could be made workable, it would mean that
    a) poor people get better legal defence, and
    b) rich people will tend to be less willing to shell out more for defence if they are just going to have to shell out for the prosecution as well, thus lessening the wealth imbalance in the criminal justice system.

  • winstonsmith

    “standing your ground in a confrontation increases the chances you will get hurt. ”

    Just because, in some cases, there is no legal duty to retreat, doesn’t mean the defender can’t still choose to retreat if it seems to be the ethically or tactically superior course of action. SYG doesn’t obligate anyone to meet force with force, it just corrects a tendency of the courts to second guess and railroad people who do. Defendants have been convicted based on a duty to retreat wherein the ability to retreat only existed in the imaginations of overzealous prosecutors.


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