Could George Zimmerman walk free after 'stand your ground' hearing?

If George Zimmerman can convince a judge that he acted within the bounds of Florida's stand your ground law, he could prevail in his case without a jury trial. Mr. Zimmerman is charged with killing unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin earlier this year.

Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/AP
In this June 29 file photo, George Zimmerman and attorney Don West appear before Circuit Judge Kenneth R. Lester, Jr., during a bond hearing at the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman will try to have the murder charge dismissed under Florida's 'stand your ground' self-defense law, his attorney said Thursday, Aug. 9.

The trial of neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, could be over before it even starts.

According to Mr. Zimmerman’s lawyer, his client will seek a “stand your ground” hearing – a “mini-trial” where evidence is introduced to a judge, there is no jury, and the burden of proof is on the defense to prove the claim. Florida’s controversial 2005 stand your ground law – the first such law in the United States – made it legal for people to use deadly force if they feared for their life during an attack in a public place.

To be sure, prosecutors say that it’s actually Trayvon who stood his ground against an unknown attacker and that Zimmerman’s injuries weren’t serious enough to indicate that his life was in danger. The shooting became a cultural flash point earlier this year after police in Sanford, Fla., where the shooting occurred, initially refused to charge Zimmerman with a crime.

But according to statistics gleaned by a team of investigative reporters at the Tampa Bay Times, 70 percent of stand your ground defenses in Florida have been successful. The overall odds of proving a successful stand your ground case go up to 73 percent in Florida if the victim is black, as Trayvon was.

Zimmerman’s self-defense is, at its core, simple: While he allegedly pursued Trayvon, whom he had pegged as a suspicious black man snooping around the neighborhood amid a crime wave, that decision doesn’t disqualify him from a self-defense argument.

What a judge will look at are simply the facts of that night and whether Zimmerman had reasonable fear that his life was in danger before firing a 9mm gun into Trayvon’s chest.

“None of what’s come out afterwards is relevant,” says Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “What’s relevant is what did Zimmerman know, what could he have known, what should he have known at the time.”

Professor Jarvis adds, “You can’t get away from the Tampa Bay Times statistics, which suggest that he goes into court with a very strong hand ... and has a 3 out of 4 chance of winning.”

Moreover, in hundreds of stand your ground cases in Florida, many defense claims have been far less clear and more circumstantial than Zimmerman’s insistence that he shot Trayvon only after getting punched and was having his head beaten into the sidewalk. The law has protected a bevy of marginal defendants, including men who killed people in self-defense during a drug deal gone bad, spurned lovers, and even a self-described vampire.

As the Tampa Bay Times reporters wrote in June, “People often go free under ‘stand your ground’ in cases that seem to make a mockery of what lawmakers intended.… In nearly a third of the cases the Times analyzed, defendants initiated the fight, shot an unarmed person or pursued their victim — and still went free.”

A case last year in Florida illuminates several dynamics of how the law works in practice. Prosecutors argued that a Collier County high school student was guilty of murder for, in essence, bringing a knife to an after-school fistfight. The boy stabbed an unarmed classmate 12 times after being punched several times in the head as he tried to walk away from a looming fight.

In a stand your ground hearing, the judge dismissed the prosecution’s opinion and set the teenager free.

In other words, "You don't have to wait until you're dead before you use deadly force,” Donald Day, a Naples defense attorney, told the Tampa Bay Times in June.

But while the statistical odds for relief are in Zimmerman’s favor, he has several significant and difficult hurdles to overcome, legal experts say. This is largely based on what has happened since the shooting.

Last week, the judge in the case, Kenneth Lester, refused to recuse himself from the case after Zimmerman’s lawyer, Mark O’Mara, raised questions about his impartiality. Mr. O’Mara’s complaint stemmed from a stern bond ruling issued by Judge Lester where he insinuated that Zimmerman may have been planning to flee the country.

Lester was also the presiding judge when Shellie Zimmerman, Zimmerman’s  wife, allegedly committed perjury by denying knowledge of a $130,000 PayPal fund that was set up to help Zimmerman’s defense. This led to Lester rescinding the original bond and eventually allowing him to be released again, this time on a $1 million bond.

“He’s going to face a judge who is going to be very skeptical of what Zimmerman says, based on what’s happened since his arrest,” says Jarvis. “The other problem he has is notoriety. This case has gotten so much attention that I can see the judge saying, ‘You know what, you’re going to trial. I’m not going to be the one who sets you free.’ ”

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