Following the fatal shooting last February of African American teenager Trayvon Martin by 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Florida, several questions have arisen concerning the state’s self-defense laws, specifically its “Stand Your Ground” rule and how it will impact the second-degree murder case against Zimmerman.
“Although general rules exist for the use of deadly force in instances of self-defense, the legal justification for it varies from state to state,” explains California personal injury attorney James Ballidis.
The Stand Your Ground rule, which is found in Florida code section 776.012, states that, “A person is justified in using force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force. However, a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if:
“(1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony; or
“(2) Under those circumstances permitted pursuant to s. 776.013.”
Florida’s Stand Your Ground law allows for the self-defense affirmative defense to be used more easily when an alleged attack occurs away from the home since the individual who used the deadly force is not required to prove he retreated. Zimmerman, for example, only needs to show that he reasonably believed he was in danger of imminent harm or that a forcible felony was about to be committed.
The Burden of Proof
Under Florida law, Zimmerman has a low burden of proof in order to avoid conviction for the killing of Trayvon Martin. In Murray v. State, 937 So.2d 277, 279 (Fla. 4th DCA 2006), the court looked at the burden of proof a defendant had to meet in order to prove the affirmative defense of self-defense. According to the court’s reasoning, a defendant does not have to prove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt, nor does he or she have to prove that the facts he or she presents to justify his or her claim of self-defense are more likely true. Instead, when a defendant introduces a claim of self-defense, if that claim introduces reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury, then the defendant cannot be convicted.
This reasoning exists because it is the burden of the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of murder. If there is doubt as to whether the defendant is guilty (because he or she was defending himself or herself, or for any other reason), then a conviction cannot occur.
Several years later, the court affirmed this reasoning from Murray in a subsequent case called Montijo v. State, 61 So.3d 424 (Fla. 5th Dist, 2011). This, therefore, stands as the rule in Florida. This means if Zimmerman’s story of self-defense is credible enough to introduce doubt into the minds of the jury, then he cannot be convicted of the murder of Trayvon Martin.
Not every state treats the affirmative defense of self-defense in the way that Florida does. California and numerous other states do instruct the jury in a criminal trial that the prosecutor has the burden of proving a case beyond a reasonable doubt and that a conviction cannot occur if the claim of self-defense introduces doubt. In other cases, however, states will shift the burden to the defendant to prove that the action was justified in self-defense. However, shifting the burden to the defendant to prove self-defense in a criminal trial raises issues of a potential Constitutional rights violation since defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
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