I’ve tried to be careful in judging this case, because so much of what we think we know is based on selective leaks, statements by people who do not have any independent knowledge of the case, and judgments reached on the basis of emotion. For example, it is certainly possible, as the right wing claims, that Martin doubled back on Zimmerman and confronted him. (to see the full range of right-wing claims about the case, one can consult the threads I selected to document the role of racialist hatred in the national, um, dialogue about this case)
So, let’s dispassionately consider some of these points. Here are my comments, which are based on a layman’s–not a lawyer’s– understanding of law.
1. How would the legal implications change if Trayvon Martin did confront George Zimmerman, or even physically assault him?
There would be no change. Martin correctly believed that he was being stalked by an unknown male. The stalker was probably not behaving unlawfully in simply following Martin, but neither did he enjoy the protections given to officers of the law. He was acting as a vigilante. Since there was no objective reason to believe that Martin had committed any crime, Zimmerman had no right to confront Martin. However, Martin did have a reason to fear that his stalker might be about to harm him. Therefore, under Florida’s poorly-written Stand Your Ground law, Martin did have justification to confront Zimmerman with force. If Martin even suspected that Zimmerman had a gun, he would have been justified in killing him. This is what the statute says:
(3) 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.
2. What if Martin was involved in drugs, petty crime, loitering with intent (or whatever)?
None of these allegations, which originate from unlawfully released and/or fabricated school records, have any bearing on the case. George Zimmerman did not know Trayvon Martin, had not witnessed who was responsible for crime in his area, and had no other reason to suspect that Martin was anyone but a kid walking back home from the convenience store. The Miami Herald did not serve the public by releasing those records. It defamed a dead kid.
Indeed, those allegation have fed directly into a white supremacist smear campaign. According to CJR’s Ryan Chittum, Stormfront published photos of someone, not Trayvon Martin, and these found their way onto Business Insider (thereby demonstrating the close connectivity of white supremacists and the country clubbers in the Republican machine) and thence onto ABC’s Good Morning America (showing the close linkage of the media to the Republican machine).
Separately, an anonymous person calling himself Klanklannon apparently hacked the dead boy’s accounts to find material to defame him with. How much of what he released is fact and how much is fabrication is anyone’s guess. But, just to add injury to homicide, people began sending e-mails from the deceased’s accounts. Our mainstream media took part in this ghoulishness [added: to be clear, the media didn’t send e-mail from Martin’s account. They defamed him in other ways].
When Joe Scarborough comes off as the only good guy in the mainstream media, you know that we’re in trouble.
3. In principle, could there be circumstances which would justify not charging George Zimmerman?
One can’t entirely rule it out. A judge has ruled that a person whose car radio has been stolen was entirely justified in pursuing the thief and stabbing him to death, then taking the other stolen radios (and selling them), all apparently on the say-so of the killer. With a law that poorly written, one can’t absolutely rule out the possibility that there was some legal reason why George Zimmerman was released.
However, it’s difficult to understand why Zimmerman would have been in fear of his life. He was the pursuer, not the pursued. He had no reason to believe that the boy he was pursuing had committed or was about to commit a crime. He was in contact with police. He shrugged off advice from police not to continue following Martin (I would not characterize “We don’t need you to do that” as an order, even in the south). He was not so afraid of Martin that he stayed in his truck. And, of course, Zimmerman had his own past which, unlike Trayvon Martin’s alleged tattoos and spraypainting a locker with “WTF” and having a baggy with residues of marijuana, included commission of actual crimes of violence. And, finally, photos of Zimmerman after the incident do not show serious wounds.
Returning to the statute, Zimmerman claims he was attacked while he was engaged in a lawful activity. If Martin attacked him, then he could certainly claim that he’s covered by the statute. But that’s something for the courts, not right-wing radio, to decide.
4. Is it possible that both Martin and Zimmerman were acting lawfully according to the statute?
I think it is possible. By saying that a person who is in a public place engaged in lawful behavior has no duty to retreat, it leaves open the possibility that two people, engaged in lawful behavior, could come to blows in such a manner that both were protected by the statute.
Finally, my guess is that Zimmerman confronted Martin with a weapon in order to menace and intimidate Martin, that Martin–justly fearing for his life–jumped Zimmerman, and Zimmerman panicked. If that guess is correct, Zimmerman is not protected by the statute. But it’s just a guess. From the evidence that has emerged, nothing can be proven except that one more kid is dead thanks to Republican encouragement of vigilantism.