A challenge was proposed to me by a friend to tell him, “everything there is to know about the Trayvon Martin Case.” I am not sure if I can ever know “everything there is to know” about this case, but the challenge generated an idea to make this week’s blog article about the case. While the death of Trayvon Martin has nothing to do with the general practice areas our blogs usually focus on, it is nice to look at different areas from time to time, especially when it is a matter of current news and events.
I am sure most people have heard about this case by now. The events happened in Sanford, Florida. A teenage boy was walking home from a convenience store late at night. He was seen by a local neighborhood watch volunteer, who felt that there was something suspicious about the boy. The man, George Zimmerman, proceeded to follow the boy, Trayvon Martin, despite police statements that this was not necessary. The moments that followed are a mystery and will be the turning points of this case. It appears that some sort of fight was initiated. Then, Zimmerman, who was carrying a gun, shot and killed Trayvon. Zimmerman has asserted that this actions were done in self defense, that Trayvon was violently attacking him to the point where he had not choice, but to shoot. However, there are no real witnesses to prove or disprove these facts. After many weeks, Zimmerman was finally charged by county prosecutors with second degree murder.
This case may not seem out of the ordinary, but it has garnered much attention. I believe this is partly because it is a very legally rich case invovling many aspects of the law. Some of the issues that present themselves are:
Traditional criminal law theories of self-defense:
In criminal law, a person charged with a crime is able to prevent defenses to a crime that would mitigate punishment. Traditionally, a person can assert self-defense when force is used because that person reasonably believed that he/she was under threat of physical harm. Force, including deadly force, is deemed justified when a person is confronted with a threat/force, first attempts to retreat, and then is confronted with the threat/force again. Generally, the force used in defense must also be equivalent to the force being used against the person. For example, if someone punches me and comes at me again, I would not be able to shoot that person, unless I truly believed they could apply deadly force to me as well. It is important to note that traditional criminal law imposes a duty to retreat. An exception to this duty, is when a person is using force to protect himself/herself while in his/her home. This exception is commonly known as the Castle Doctrine. In Florida, however, a law was passed in 2011 that modified this traditional theory. The law allows a person, who is lawfully in any place, to use force, including deadly force, without first attempting to retreat. The law clearly states that a person is entitled to “stand his/her ground” when using self defense. The key difference here is that the exception to the duty to retreat is expanded to any place, not just one’s home. If one invokes this law, he/she is given immunity from criminal charges. It is under this theory, that Zimmerman has asserted that he did nothing wrong. The problem here is that there are really no witnesses to this shooting to help prove whether Zimmerman could have really felt that he was under a threat of danger or death when confronting Trayvon Martin.
Criminal charges and degrees
Many of us, just from watching telelvision and movies, are aware that there several different degrees of a crime that one can be charged with. The selection of what to charge someone with is a difficult and, often, strategic choice for the prosecution. The prosecution must look at what is needed to prove each crime at a certain degree and what the possible sentencing outcomes are. The prosecution, like anyone, has pressure to win cases, especially high profile cases, such as this one. The prosecution is going to try to proceed with the most winnable case. In this case, the Seminole County Prosecutor has charged Zimmerman with second degree murder. Florida law states that second degree murder occurrs when one commits the unlawful killing of another with a depraved mind, but not with premeditation. If found guilty, second degree carries a life sentence. The key to this charge is the lack of premeditation. The prosecution in this case will not need to prove that Zimmerman put any thought or planning into the shooting of Trayvon Martin. They need only show that he committed an act that he knew could kill the teenage boy and still continued to proceed with that act.
Before he was even formally charged, Zimmerman had two defense lawyers that publicly withdrew from his case and terminated their lawyer/client relationship with him. Lawyers are governed by ethics rules and rules of professional responsibility. These rules state that lawyers can only terminate a lawyer/client relationship under strict circumstances. The reason for this is that terminating representation can have a huge adverse affect on a client, i.e. he/she may be forced to navigate the legal system alone, unless he/she can find substitute counsel. A lawyer can withdraw as counsel if he/she believes a client is undertaking criminal activity, or wishes the lawyer to commit a criminal act in the representation. Other grounds include: the lawyer believes the case is too financially burdensome; the lawyer feels that he/she is not competent enough to continue the representation; the lawyer feels that the representation is morally repugnant; or for any other just cause. Zimmerman’s lawyers say that they had to cease the representation because their client was uncommunicative and took actions that they did not advise him were proper. While these may be some serious issues that could warrant withdrawal as counsel, the issue I see is that the lawyers did not appear to take precautions that their withdrawal would not have a seriously adverse affect on their client. From the statements made, it appears that they also did not take efforts to correct the issues they had with their client before terminating the lawyer/client relationship.
It is clear from news reports, that there is an underlying current of race relations in this case. While some may not think of Florida when they think of the South and racial tension, there are areas where racial tensions are high. It has been reported that Sanford, Florida has a history of unequal treatment of races by law enforcement. Reporters take note that Trayvon Martin was an African American teenager doing nothing out of the ordinary. He was just walking home at night. A call to police by Zimmerman shows that he stated that Trayvon looked like he was “on drugs or something.” But it was dark, and Trayvon was wearing a hoodie that should have blocked most of his face, so how could Zimmerman have made this conclusion? Some articles suggest that this case has the potential to be tried as a hate crime. The trouble here is that it must be shown the a hate crime was committed because of the victim’s race, sex, national origin, religion, etc… Again, this is a crime with primarily two witnesses. It would be hard to prove that Zimmerman’s actions were the direct result of any prejudices or because of Trayvon’s race.
Overall, much can be learned from this case, and it will be an interesting one to follow. As with any high profile case, public opinion, not just legal theories will also play an important role.