Did ‘Stand Your Ground’ Actually Protect Trayvon Martin?

by David French

In reading through the coverage of the Trayvon Martin incident (by the way, NRO’s own Robert VerBruggen has been doing an excellent job reporting and commenting on the case), and it strikes me that it is more likely that if anyone was (legally) protected by Florida’s now-infamous “stand your ground” law, it was Trayvon Martin, not George Zimmerman.  

While there is much we don’t know about the incident, one potential scenario is the following: Trayvon Martin is walking in his father’s neighborhood, doing nothing at all wrong, when a highly agitated man comes running up to him — acting quite aggressively. This man is obviously not a police officer, it’s evening, and Martin is alone. In this scenario, who has the reasonable belief he’s in danger? Is it the person being chased or the chaser? Doesn’t Martin have the right to “stand his ground?”  

If Martin has the right to stand his ground, that would include using his fists to protect himself. Here is the text of the statute:

“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.”

If Zimmerman initiated a fight, then shot Martin when he began losing the fight, he’ll likely be convicted. It is not uncommon in criminal law to see aggressors in bar fights or other fist fights dramatically escalate the use of force when they suddenly feel as if the odds are shifting against them. Rarely does a self-defense argument protect these defendants from successful prosecution.

There is, however, a circumstance in which the right of self-defense may protect even the initial aggressor: If the aggressor clearly breaks contact and is retreating from the scene, then no one has a right to pursue him to exact revenge. If news reports are to be believed, then Zimmerman has alleged that Martin attacked Zimmerman when Zimmerman was in the act of retreating back to his vehicle. If that’s the case, then Zimmerman’s right of self-defense may very well “reset,” and he may find greater refuge in the law.

The difficulty, of course, will lie in establishing the facts when the only living witness to the entire encounter is the (likely) defendant. The justice system doesn’t have a God’s-eye view of events, and while the public outcry may have facilitated justice in forcing a more thorough investigation, we need to take great care that the same outcry doesn’t create such a super-heated environment that the political imperatives of a conviction outweigh the interests of justice.