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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.

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Instead of waiting for police, Zimmerman exited the car and shot Trayvon after a brief altercation. Trayvon, 17, had no previous criminal record, while Zimmerman recently had a 2005 felony arrest for assault on a police officer expunged by the courts.

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"Had Trayvon Martin been the triggerman, they would have arrested him day one, hour one and he would be in jail with no bail,” Ben Crump, a Tallahassee lawyer representing the family, told the Florida Courier.

"We have a murderer on the streets, walking around," Natalie Jackson, another lawyer representing the family, said on Friday.

Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee told the Orlando Sentinel that he had no grounds to arrest Zimmerman, and told reporters Thursday that that he has invited the US Department of Justice and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review the investigation. Florida officials confirmed they began an investigation on March 13.

"It's an open book," Mr. Lee said. "If they want to look at what we did and how we did it and what information we have, they're welcome to it."

Police have released little information, including the 911 tapes, about what happened that night and no details about how Trayvon and Zimmerman ended up grappling. What has been revealed is that before an officer arrived, Trayvon and Zimmerman got into a fight, according to police, witnesses heard one or both calling for help, and Zimmerman shot Trayvon once in the chest with a 9 mm handgun.

One witness said he came upon the scene and saw Zimmerman on his back on the ground, which jibes with statements by the police that he was covered in grass and blood. Another witness has said in a TV interview that “there was no punching, no hitting going on at the time, no wrestling,” but police say that witness gave an official account to them that jibed with Zimmerman's story.

In a letter to the Orlando Sentinel on Friday, Zimmerman's father, Robert Zimmerman, wrote that his son is part-Hispanic “with many black family members and friends.” He also pushed back at the idea that Zimmerman was the aggressor who instigated the altercation.

"At no time did George follow or confront Mr. Martin," he wrote. "When the true details of the event become public, and I hope that will be soon, everyone should be outraged by the treatment of George Zimmerman in the media."

The emotional stakes, racial backdrop, and the awkward position of the police department suggest how state laws broadening self-defense rights can backfire. But whether it's a prosecutor or a jury deciding the outcome of a case, self-defense arguments are often powerful and difficult to disprove beyond a reasonable doubt, even in jurisdictions without Stand Your Ground laws.

“This is a tragedy, and to the extent the law plays a role in encouraging this type of situation to happen, it calls into question the law,” says Professor Bellin. “At the same time, it's not clear that if this happens in a jurisdiction where there isn't a Stand Your Ground law, that you necessarily get a different result.”

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