Now that George Zimmerman has been arrested and will plead not guilty to second-degree murder in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, there are new questions. The most important: Will an unusual aspect of Florida’s “stand-your-ground’ law allow Zimmerman to receive immunity and avoid prosecution?
“As you know there was a lot of anxiety and anger, but since he was arrested and charged with second-degree murder, there has been a sigh of relief that the appropriate action was taken,” said Pastor Wesley Leonard of Southside Church of Christ in Orlando.
“Still, we are reminding people that we are still on first base,” said Leonard, who is also State Chair of Religious Affairs for the Florida Civil Rights Association.
Zimmerman will plead not guilty in a Florida courtroom. A formal arraignment was set for May 29. Second-degree murder with a firearm is punishable by a minimum of 25 years in prison and up to life behind bars. Within 15 days, prosecutors will provide Zimmerman’s defense attorney Mark O’Mara with the evidence–witness statements, police reports, and photos.
But once all the evidence has been provided to Zimmerman’s defense team, his lawyer could file a motion for immunity, which experts believe will most likely happen. In that case, the judge alone will determine if the evidence overwhelmingly shows Zimmerman was acting in self-defense. The judge can dismiss the case if it is determined that the evidence supports a dismissal.
Twenty-three other states have some sort of ”stand-your-ground” law.
“What is different about Florida is the process they have for asserting the defense—allowing the defendant to raise it before trial by filing a motion to dismiss the charges. This process permits the judge to decide whether or not the case should even go to a jury,” said Angela Davis, a professor of law at American University in Washington, D.C. and author of “Arbitrary Justice: The Power of the American Prosecutor.”
“I believe in the law of self-defense. It says if someone is unlawfully attacking you, you can defend yourself. But it’s a law of necessity. You are only supposed to use the amount of force necessary to protect yourself. He used deadly force against a boy without a weapon.”
Troy J. Webber, a criminal attorney in Jacksonville, Fla, said Zimmerman’s attorney can ask for immunity at any time, now that the prosecution of the case has begun.
“It just usually happens after discovery when all the evidence is before the judge,” said Webber. “There would be no reason in this case for (the defense attorney) not to attempt it. Given we don’t know the full story, I can’t speculate about the chances he might have to win a dismissal. But they have nothing to lose.
“Even if you lose at the “stand-your-ground” hearing, that does not prevent you from raising self-defense as an affirmative defense at the trial,” offered Webber, who said Florida is “in the minority” of states that allow this type of immunity motion.
Zimmerman’s previous attorneys quit the case Tuesday, saying they had lost contact with their client. His new attorney, Mark O’Mara also serves as legal analyst for Central Florida’s WKMG, a CBS television affiliate. Before becoming Zimmerman’s attorney, O’Mara had commented on television that the shooting could be legally justified under Florida law.
O’Mara said, “If you can present evidence or at least your own testimony that (you) felt in fear that he was going to commit great bodily injury or death, that is what kicks in the statutory protection that you’re allowed to respond with deadly force.”
On the O’Mara Law Group website, the attorney is described as “sole practitioner since 1985,” practicing criminal and family law for 28 years. The site says O’Mara is also a former felony prosecutor and “has handled all types of criminal cases, including traffic, property crimes, DUI, drug cases and death penalty cases.”
At the press conference announcing the charges against Zimmerman, special prosecutor Angela Casey called Trayvon Martin’s parents “sweet” and said she prayed with them first, adding, “We did not promise them anything.”
In Florida, some legal experts and community activists say Corey is known for that type of sensitive approach to victims and their relatives.
“A lot of people were impressed that Angela Corey went as high as second degree murder,” said Pastor Leonard. “She has a bull dog reputation and she lived up to it. She is very much a victim’s advocate kind of prosecutor. She’s very aggressive in seeking prosecution.”
But nationally, many child advocates know Corey for a different reputation. In the three years she has served as Fourth Judicial Circuit’s State Attorney, the percentage of children being tried as adults has dramatically increased.
“When it comes to children of color in the Fourth Circuit, Angela Corey has increased what we call direct files (sending children straight to adult courts) by 137%,” said Roy Miller, President and Founder of The Children’s Campaign.
Over 160,000 people have signed an online petition asking Corey to not try Cristian Fernandez as an adult. The child was 12 years old and had been abused most of his life, when his case—he is charged with causing the death of his two-year-old brother–was sent to adult court.
“He is still in juvenile detention,” said Miller. “She brought pre-meditated murder charges against him. She has been disingenuous. She said she has no intent of having him serve life without parole. But if convicted of these charges, he will. Does being the toughest prosecutor mean you are aggressively filing charges against children? I think that you’re misguided, not tough.”
Meanwhile, some people—black and white–hope the Trayvon Martin case illustrates the horrific harm that can be done when a law is so ambiguous it can be misused.
“We in the minority community, all we want is to be treated the same under the law,” said Pastor Leonard, who is black. “We just want the law to work the same for everybody.”
“Maybe in concept, the law is a good idea but it needs to be more specific so we can weed out the guy using the reason of self defense for carrying out some subtext, whether it’s racial or not,” said Webb, who is white.
“What is suspicious for me is police routinely make arrests in (that area) where there is the possibility of a stand-your-ground defense,” Webber said. “Just as in the Trayvon Martin case, for some reaso,n they decided to give (Zimmerman) the benefit of the doubt. That was unusual.”
Webber offers that the difference in treatment could be “because he was a neighborhood watch leader and those organizations are powerful and law enforcement didn’t want to anger a large constituency.”
Davis, the black law professor, sees something more. “In all the years I’ve practiced, I never had a client that said, ‘I did it in self defense’ and the police said, ‘We’re not going to arrest you then.’ I think that in this case, the fact that the victim was black had a lot to do with it.”