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Trayvon Martin killing in Florida puts 'Stand Your Ground' law on trial

The shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, in a gated Florida community has raised allegations of racial injustice and highlighted the burden that 'Stand Your Ground' laws impose on law enforcement officers.

By Staff writer / March 16, 2012

In this undated photo from the Martin family, Trayvon Martin poses. The family of the black teenager fatally shot by a white neighborhood watch volunteer arrived at Sanford City Hall Friday evening March 16, 2012 to listen to recordings of 911 calls.

AP Photo/HO, Martin Family Photos

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ATLANTA

For many tuning in across the nation, the shooting late last month in Florida of an unarmed black teenager by a suspicious neighborhood watch captain looks like a racially motivated murder.

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That's why the decision by the police not to arrest George Zimmerman for getting out of his car and shooting Trayvon Martin in the middle of a gated neighborhood in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26 has raised allegations of racial injustice and profiling.

The shooting has sparked a nationwide protest petition, the involvement of a black militia group, and, on Friday, a call by the parents of the slain teenager for the FBI to investigate the handling of the case, which police have handed off to state investigators.

The shooting also presents a tragic snapshot of so-called "Stand Your Ground" laws, what critics call “license-to-murder.”

Such laws eliminate the English Law concept of a “duty to retreat” from dangerous situations outside the home. Without that, an armed citizen has no obligation to stand down in the face of a threat.

The problem, as the Martin case highlights, is that making the duty to retreat "totally irrelevant," as Stetson University law professor Robert Batey has said, means the law gives prosecutors fewer factors to consider when determining self-defense, including, potentially, the extent to which a person claiming self-defense may have aggravated the situation.

Florida became the first state to pass a specific Stand Your Ground law in 2005, essentially expanding self-defense zones from the home to most public places. Seventeen states now have such laws.

“It's hard to imagine that this couldn't have been resolved by [Mr. Zimmerman] leaving, so that no one would've gotten hurt, so this is a case where the Stand Your Ground law can actually make a legal difference,” says former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Bellin, a law professor at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas.

“Even if you have suspicions about what motivated this, and you think there was a racial element and no justification for this shooting, the fact is he had no obligation to retreat under the law,” he notes. “If prosecutors don't have the evidence to disprove the claim of self-defense, they won't be able to win.”

But for the parents of the victim, and some 240,000 people who have signed a petition for a federal investigation on the Change.org website, the bare facts of the case suggest that Zimmerman was the aggressor and that the failure to arrest him points to covert racism and an abdication of authority by the local police department.

In a press conference Friday, Trayvon Martin's parents said they no longer had any faith in the Sanford Police Department and called on the FBI to take over the investigation.

"We're not getting any closure, any answers, and it's very disturbing,” Tracy Martin, Trayvon's father, said. “As a father, I'm hurt. I feel betrayed by the Sanford Police Department."

Meanwhile, tensions are roiling in the area as several large rallies and protests are being planned and a black militia group has vowed to place the shooter under citizen's arrest. The state has said it may take several weeks to complete its review of the case.

On Feb. 26, Zimmerman, 28, a self-appointed block watch captain in The Retreat at Twin Lakes, a gated community in Sanford, just outside Orlando, called 911 from his car to report a suspicious person – a black man wearing a hoodie – walking slowly through the neighborhood. The 911 operator, according to police, told Zimmerman to wait for police to arrive. The man in the hoodie was Trayvon, returning to his family's house from buying Skittles and an iced tea at a local convenience store.

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