The second degree murder charge of George Zimmerman has received widespread approval. I am in Fort Worth to speak to the Fort Worth Lecture Foundation this afternoon. However, I am receiving a lot of calls on the basis for the charge. I must confess that I am not optimistic on the chances of a conviction unless the special prosecutor has undisclosed evidence to meet the high standard under the state law. As I discussed on BBC last night, there are substantial challenges to make such a charge stick in this case.
I was surprised to see a second-degree murder charge which requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that a person was killed, without any premeditated design, by an act imminently dangerous to another and evincing a depraved mind showing no regard for human life. This is a lower standard than the premeditated standard for first degree murder. However, the evidence in the case would seem to more closely resemble manslaughter. Section 782.07(1) provides that standard:
The killing of a human being by the act, procurement, or culpable negligence of another, without lawful justification according to the provisions of chapter 776 and in cases in which such killing shall not be excusable homicide or murder, according to the provisions of this chapter, is manslaughter, a felony of the second degree ….
Special Prosecutor Corey went for the maximum charge allowed without using a grand jury. The decision not to go to a grand jury knocked out the availability of murder in the first degree — though such a charge would be highly questionable on these facts.
In Corey’s defense, she is merely giving the state a chance to make the case before a state judge who will first have to decide whether there is a viable affirmative defense under the Stand Your Ground law. It is at that stage that we will be able to see what new evidence Corey has to support the case. I remain doubtful on the chances solely due to the language of the state law and past rulings of state judges — absent more evidence of malice or depravity by Zimmerman. However, I have previously maintained that there was ample evidence to arrest Zimmerman at the scene.
Zimmerman is reportedly maintaining that that he shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin after a struggle and in self-defense. “Stand Your Ground” law allows individuals who feel threatened in a public place to “meet force with force,” rather than retreat. Moreover, while Zimmerman claims Martin came at him, citizens are allowed to allowed suspicious individuals in their neighborhood.
Zimmerman says that he was driving to a grocery store when he saw Martin walking through the gated community and called the police to report a suspicious person. He says that he was bleeding and injured from the encounter. There is ample reason to contest those assertions, but the past application of this law shows a considerable deference given defendants in the use of force. We discussed the prior ruling in the the case of Greyston Garcia and the dangerous ambiguity created by these laws. The second-degree murder charges against Garcia were thrown out by a Florida judge under the Stand Your Ground law despite the fact that he did not just stand his ground, but ran after a man who tried to steal his car radio and proceeded to stab the unarmed man to death.
As discussed previously, I have been a long critic of these laws and the earlier Castle Doctrine or “Make My Day” laws. These laws address a problem that does not exist. There are ample protections under the common law for individuals to use the privilege of self-defense, including reasonable mistaken self-defense. As noted earlier, I find it a bit maddening to hear Florida legislators now claim to have never anticipated abuses under these laws. Critics like myself have been vocal about the potential for abuse under these laws for years. Legislators have ignored those warnings because of the popularity of these laws.
The problem with both “Make My Day laws” (applying to the home) and “Stand Your Ground laws” (applying in “other places”) is that they facilitate or enable those who are inclined to use lethal force. The Horn case out of Texas is such an example where, as with Zimmerman, Joe Horn ignored instructions not to confront the suspects. Even cases that border on executions have been found protected under such laws.
In the earlier case, Garcia, 25, saw Pedro Roteta, 26, trying to steal the radio from his truck outside Garcia’s Miami apartment. He grabbed a large knife and chased the unarmed Roteta down the street and proceeded to stab him to death. This week, the state judge threw out the charges under the state’s “stand your ground” law.
Cases like Garcia undermine the confidence in the Zimmerman charges. Putting aside the affirmative defense, Corey would need to show much more than is currently known to support a second-degree murder charge, in my view. Based on the current evidence, I would be surprised if she could secure a conviction for second-degree murder.
Zimmerman today is seeking bail and should receive it under the state standard. He turned himself in and cooperated with the police at the scene of the alleged crime. While he has a prior minor record, the prior conduct would not normally be a barrier to release on bond.