By Jacob Sullum – In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Monday night, one of the six jurors who acquitted George Zimmerman uttered the words “Stand Your Ground.” Is this the evidence that critics of Florida-style self-defense laws have long sought, proving once and for all that abolishing the duty to retreat for people attacked in public places enabled Zimmerman to get away with murder? Does the interview show that even though neither the defense nor the prosecution saw this as a “stand your ground” case, the jury did? Not quite.
While Juror B-37 faulted Zimmerman for getting out of his car after calling police to report the “suspicious” character who turned out to be Trayvon Martin, she said she was convinced by the evidence that Martin threw the first punch and pinned Zimmerman to the ground. “I think Trayvon got mad and attacked him,” she said. “I think George was pretty consistent and told the truth, basically. I’m sure there were some fabrications, enhancements, but I think pretty much it happened the way George said it happened.” That means Martin was on top of Zimmerman, knocking his head against the pavement, when Zimmerman shot him.
The juror told Cooper she was not sure whether Martin really was reaching for Zimmerman’s gun, or whether Zimmerman just perceived it that way. But that detail did not matter, she said, “because George had a right to protect himself at that point.” She said she was sure that Zimmerman honestly believed his life was in danger and that it was his voice, not Martin’s, crying for help in the background of a 911 call that was played repeatedly during the trial, because “whoever was calling for help was in fear for their life.” In short, she accepted the general thrust of Zimmerman’s account, including his claim that Martin was on top of him, preventing him from getting up, which means the right to stand your ground would have been irrelevant. With these points in mind, consider the exchange in which the juror mentioned Florida’s “stand your ground” law:
Cooper: Did you feel like you understood the instructions from the judge? Because they were very complex. I mean, reading them, they were tough to follow.
Juror: Right. That was our problem. It was just so confusing what went with what and what we could apply to what. Because I mean, there was a couple of them in there [other jurors] that wanted to find him guilty of something. And after hours and hours and hours of deliberating over the law and reading it over and over and over again, we decided there’s just no way—no other place to go.
Cooper: Because of the two options you had, second-degree murder or manslaughter, you felt neither applied?
Juror: Right. Because of the heat of the moment and the Stand Your Ground. He had a right to defend himself. If he felt threatened that his life was going to be taken away from him or he was going to have bodily harm, he had a right.
Cooper: Even though he got out of the car, followed Trayvon Martin, that didn’t matter in the deliberations. What mattered was the final seconds, minutes when there was an altercation and whether or not…George Zimmerman felt his life was in danger?
Juror: That’s how we read the law. That’s how we got to the point of everybody [voting] not guilty.
Cooper: So that was the belief of the jury, that you had to zero in on those final minutes/seconds, about the threat that George Zimmerman believed he faced.
Juror: That’s exactly what happened.
Cooper: So whether it was George Zimmerman getting out of the vehicle, whether he was right to get out of the vehicle, whether he was a wannabe cop, whether he was overeager—none of that, in the final analysis, mattered. What mattered was [in] those seconds before the shot went off, did George Zimmerman fear for his life?
Juror: Exactly. That’s exactly what happened.
Cooper: Do you have any doubt that George Zimmerman feared for his life?
Juror: I have no doubt that George Zimmerman feared for his life in the situation he was in at the time.
And again, the “the situation he was in at the time,” according to his own account, which the jurors evidently accepted, involved lying under Martin, who was pummeling him and smacking his head against the sidewalk. So whatever Juror B-37 meant by referring to “stand your ground,” she clearly did not mean that Zimmerman easily could have extricated himself from this situation but decided not to.
Contrary to a lot of misleading reporting on this case, Florida is not unique in asking whether someone who used lethal force reasonably believed it was necessary to save his own life. Nor was that standard part of the changes made in 2005, when the legislature eliminated the duty to retreat in public places. The same language was already part of Florida’s self-defense law.
Confusion about what “stand your ground” means is apparent in this post by Nicole Flatow of Think Progress, who writes:
Earlier reports suggested the notorious law that authorizes the unfettered use of deadly force in self-defense was not applied to the case, because Zimmerman’s lawyers opted not to request a Stand Your Ground hearing. But as ThinkProgress explained in a post earlier today, the jury instructions contained the law’s key provision and instructed jurors that self-defense meant Zimmerman was entitled to “stand his ground” with “no duty to retreat.”
The juror’s interview with Anderson Cooper Monday night confirms that the jury not only considered this language in their deliberations, but that their decision hinged in part on the Stand Your Ground Law.
Since the law sets forth conditions in which deadly force is justified, it clearly does not allow “the unfettered use of deadly force.” And the reason people like me have been saying that “stand your ground” had nothing to do with Zimmerman’s defense is not that he waived his right to a pretrial hearing; it’s that his fight with Martin, as he described it, left no room for him to retreat. If the jurors accepted that account, as Juror B-37 says they did, it is hard to see how their verdict could have hinged on the absence of a duty to retreat.
You can watch pieces of the interview here.