George Zimmerman was ordered back behind bars last month after his $150,000 bond was revoked for lying about his financial circumstances. On June 29, he’ll have another opportunity to persuade the judge to let him go free on bond until his trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin. But the as-yet-unscheduled Stand Your Ground hearing could allow Zimmerman to go free without prosecution. A Stand Your Ground hearing is months away — if it happens at all. And if it does, there is a possibility that Zimmerman could walk for killing an unarmed teenager on a rainy night in February.
The Stand Your Ground (SYG) law is an insane 2005 statute that greatly expands the Castle Doctrine. That’s the longstanding legal right to defend yourself in your home or place of work without a duty to retreat before using deadly force. SYG now expands that zone of protection to wherever you have a legal right to be.
Florida statute 776.013(3) says: (a) person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
Kendall Coffey, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida from 1993 to 1996, calls the SYG law a “license to kill.” That’s because the statute gives immunity from prosecution to those found not to be in violation of the law. And the way its broad language is being applied, it has become easier to kill someone without ever standing trial.
Zimmerman claimed self-defense in the Feb. 26 tragedy, and Sanford police officials let him walk out without pressing charges, citing SYG. Now that Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder, he and his lawyers will have to decide whether to to try to get the entire case thrown out using SYG. But there is risk for both sides in a SYG hearing.
Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s defense attorney, is under no statutory deadline for filing for a SYG hearing. It could be a while, regardless. He has said that he plans to interview 50 witnesses before going to trial next year. Coffey told me in a phone interview Friday afternoon that he thinks O’Mara will decide whether to go for a SYG hearing after conducting a few of the “important depositions.”
If O’Mara goes for such a hearing it would be a mini-trial, with the prosecution presenting its best case against Zimmerman. In a filing last month to keep his statements under seal until trial, prosecutors wrote, “Defendant (Zimmerman) has provided law enforcement with numerous statements, some of which are contradictory, and are inconsistent with the physical evidence and statements of witnesses.”
Coffey said that the risk for O’Mara and Zimmerman is that they would likely have to put Zimmerman on the stand at the SYG hearing, potentially exposing him to a difficult time in cross-examination that the prosecutors could use against him at the later trial if the case is not dismissed by the judge. Either side has 30 days to file an appeal of the SYG ruling.
But the decision at each step is in the hands of one person: Seminole County Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester. The same judge Zimmerman and his wife lied to at the first bail hearing. The same judge who will decide whether the accused murderer awaits trial out of jail. The same judge who will determine whether SYG applies to the killer of Trayvon.
Zimmerman’s case rests on his veracity as much as it does on the evidence. That he already has a trust deficit with the judge is not good for him. But as we’ll see in the next post, proving through a preponderance of the evidence that Zimmerman was standing his ground might not be as difficult as folks at first thought.