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.
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.
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.
"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.”