Everyone is talking about the George Zimmerman trial. Did you watch it on HLNtv.com as much as I did? This widely publicized trial seemed to crystallize at least three important legal issues: self-defense, the justified use of deadly force, and the pitfalls potentially arising from attempting to make a citizen’s arrest. Another unfortunate consequence of this case was the strong divide among racial lines when examining the players involved. This part of the case will not be included in this discussion.
In order to arrive upon a truly accurate and just decision, one must first be educated on the law. While this case was venued in Florida, where the unfortunate incident occurred, the following will be a discussion of the law in Georgia on the issues presented. First, we know that George Zimmerman sought out some police training and that he applied to the police academy (and was rejected) on more than one occasion, some speculating due to his “bad credit.” As to his ability to legally carry a firearm, Georgia law at OCGA Sec. 16-11-129 provides that Mr. Zimmerman was permitted to carry either a concealed or openly displayed firearm upon legally obtaining a permit and such permit being approved by a Judge of Probate Court in his County of residence. In Georgia, the applicant can simply pay a fee of $30.00 to the county and must also not have been convicted of a major felony or crime involving any “controlled dangerous substance,” i.e. drugs. As readers may recall, George Zimmerman was not a member of law enforcement at any time, and he was simply a “private citizen” licensed to carry a concealed firearm and a volunteer member of a “neighborhood watch” of his Home Owner’s Association.
Next, without George Zimmerman being a member of law enforcement, he really was not obligated to provide any legal justification for his attempt to “stop” Treyvon Martin. Interestingly, if George Zimmerman’s stop did violate Mr. Martin’s 4th Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution, and that “stop” actually did yield the dangerous instrumentalities of a crime like deadly weapons or tools associated with breaking and entering, the local police could “use” such evidence against him, as they did not sanction Zimmerman’s “unlawful stop” at any time. If such a scenario were to play out, Mr. Martin would be “stuck” with Zimmerman’s bad acts and no “fruit of the poisonous tree” arguments could be made that might later exclude the illegally obtained evidence in this scenario. However, as Mr. Zimmerman’s ability to make a “citizen’s arrest, OCGA Sec. 17-4-60 provides that a private citizen may have grounds to arrest an offender if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge. If the offense is a felony and the offender is escaping or attempting to escape, a private person may arrest him upon reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion. Id. Here, as the 911 tapes revealed, Zimmerman did not really appear to have any “reasonable articulable grounds for suspicion” – beyond his own subjective belief that Mr. Martin was “up to no good” – and, at least in Georgia, trespassing is not a felony. Thus, under Georgia law, Mr. Zimmerman was not legally justified in attempting to detain Mr. Martin in any regard – through the use of his firearm or any other means.
What is unclear about the 911 tapes is “who” started the physical altercation when Zimmerman confronted Mr. Martin. Mr. Zimmerman said that it was the late Mr. Martin, but his accusers stated otherwise, arguing that it was Mr. Zimmerman who provoked the physical altercation that eventually led to the shooting death of Mr. Martin shortly thereafter. In either event, as to the issue of “self-defense,” as a general matter, under OCGA Sec. 16-3-21(a), Georgia law provides that a person is justified in threatening or using force against another when and to the extent that he or she reasonably believes that such threat or force is necessary to defend himself or herself or a third person against such other’s imminent use of unlawful force; however, a person may only use “deadly force” only if he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury to himself or herself, or another. Id. In other words, the “belief” must be more than a “subjective belief” (meaning a personal belief held by the actor alone), but, rather, the belief must be “objectively” reasonable in the eyes of others. In the context of a trial, that means through the eyes of a jury. There are exceptions to this rule, one of the most noteworthy being that an individual cannot provoke the incident simply to use the objectively reasonable belief of “imminent death” to act as an excuse or justification for his or her killing.
Given the tight framework discussed above, it was the defense team’s job to portray George Zimmerman, regardless of his motive in stopping Treyvon Martin on the private property he “patrolled,” as an individual who truly believed that serious bodily harm or death was imminent at the time he used deadly force upon young Treyvon Martin during their physical altercation – regardless of who started it. As the above-discussed exception to permissive deadly force suggests, if Zimmerman secretly wanted this unknown individual to use deadly force simply as an excuse to kill him, he must have had “hate in his heart” or “ill-will” as argued endlessly by the prosecution at closing arguments. As we learned late July 13th, 2013, the jury made no such finding. Also noteworthy was the prosecution’s repeated attempts at portraying Zimmerman as a “wannabe cop,” which may or may not have been true. However, the true decision all seemed to come down to the spit second or two in which Zimmerman decided to discharge the firearm which he was lawfully carrying. The jury considered the relative size of both men, they listened to the 911 tapes, and they viewed pictures of Zimmerman’s bloody scalp after Treyvon Martin was banging it down on the concrete over and over. Zimmerman was found “not guilty” on all charges on the grounds of “self defense” – and we all know he killed him. He admits it. This is how the law works.
The jury has spoken. The question is – can we live with it?