It’s been over a month since Trayvon Martin was gunned down by George Zimmerman. An arrest has yet to be made, and charges have not been filed. The criminal justice system has only recently sprung into action to respond to the case, spurred largely by the public outrage and protests around the nation. As the state of Florida and Zimmernan’s defense gear up for legal proceedings, the question on many people’s minds is: can the criminal justice system deliver a modicum of that for Martin’s grieving family?
Zimmerman has escaped arrest by evoking Florida’s 2005 “stand your ground” law. The author of the law has said that it was never designed to protect vigilantes like Zimmerman, yet legal experts say the law presents significant obstacles to any attempt to seek justice for Martin.
A grand jury is set to convene on April 10 to hear evidence in the case and decide whether or not to charge Zimmerman, who admits he shot the unarmed black teen yet says he was acting in self-defense. Angela Corey, the newly assigned Florida attorney general announced with confidence that she won’t need the direction of a grand jury to decide how to proceed. Yet even she has acknowledged that the decision about how and whether to prosecute will hinge upon the winnable options available to her office.
“When we’re done with this, you’ll know what we could do with what we had,” Corey told the Miami Herald in a plea for patience from the public.
But patience is something that’s in short supply right now, as the days since Martin’s death march on.
Zimmerman has contended that on the rainy night of February 26, he killed Martin after he had his nose broken and head slammed into the concrete sidewalk by the 17-year-old boy. Martin was unarmed. Under common law, a person has the responsibility to do everything in their power to avoid using deadly force in self defense, “up to and including turning around and running away,” said Bob Dekle, a law professor at the University of Florida.
“But the stand your ground law provides that no matter where you are you can stand your ground and meet force with force, up to and including deadly force. Even if that’s offered to you, you don’t have to turn around and retreat.”
What prosecutors are now trying to figure out as they map out their legal game plan is whether or not Martin presented such a threat to Zimmerman. Some experts say that even under Florida’s loosely written “stand your ground” law, Zimmerman overstepped his rights.
Zimmerman made a 911 call that night, one of 46 he’d made in the course of eight years, just before he killed Martin. Zimmerman was concerned about the presence of a “suspicious” person in his gated Sanford, Florida, community, but ignored the directions of the dispatcher not to trail Martin. Both sides will likely argue most over what happened in the next few minutes. Zimmerman says that Martin assaulted him and broke his nose; Martin’s girlfriend says that she got a call from Martin who was worried about someone who was following him just before Zimmerman approached Martin and the line went dead.
“Martin had no weapon, he was clearly no threat to Zimmerman’s life, nor is there evidence that Martin posed the threat of great bodily harm,” said Sam Walker, a criminologist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “So when he invokes the law, he’s wrong.”
That point is something that even the author of the law, Florida lawmaker Dennis Baxley has argued as he’s gone on national television in recent weeks to defend his statute. “There is nothing in the stand your ground law that authorizes a person to pursue and confront,” said Baxley. Even a representative from the NRA, which was instrumental in crafting Florida’s law, suggested that it appears that the statute “doesn’t apply” to Zimmerman here. It’s a strategic move to distance themselves from someone who they’ll continue to depict as a rogue vigilante.
Yet the law presents a series of other obstacles to prosecutors. Dekle underlined a provision of the law which also says that if a person makes a claim of self defense the police are cautioned not to arrest.
The lead homicide investigator on the case recommended that Zimmerman be charged with manslaughter the night of the killing, ABC reported, but was instructed not to press charges by the state attorney’s office. The state attorney’s office at the time said there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Zimmerman, and the local police chief, who’s since stepped down, said he feared civil liability if he acted too aggressively on the case.
Florida’s “stand your ground” laws, which have marched across the country to nearly two dozen states since Florida first enacted theirs in 2005, are too loosely written, Walker said. They expand the rights of civilians, and allow folks like Zimmerman, who deputize themselves law enforcement officers, to confront perceived threats on their own.
“Stand your ground laws shouldn’t be called that,” said Victor Rios, a sociologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “It’s essentially giving citizens permission to do what cops have been doing forever to black and brown men: shoot first.” Indeed, Zimmerman imagined himself something of a cowboy police officer. While he was a member of the neighborhood watch team, national neighborhood watch organizations have since said he violated basic policies about confronting people and carrying firearms.
“People like Zimmerman are now thinking with this law: hey, this protects me from violently attacking this person and the law has told me that they are criminals because that’s how law enforcement treats them—so let me take the law into my own hands.”
Since Florida passed its law, justifiable homicides in the state of Florida have multiplied by more than 200 percent. “What this suggests is that there are a lot of people getting killed in situations where prior to stand your ground laws they’d be considered unlawful,” said Dekle.
It may have been confusion over the law, or basic irresponsibility or sloppiness, but the police department may not have investigated the case thoroughly enough to gather evidence that could help convict Zimmerman if he’s ever charged. Zimmerman, for instance, never was tested for drugs and alcohol—though Martin was in his autopsy after he was killed.
“The problem was if there was a slipshod investigation of a person where there’s no actual eyewitnesses who say he did it in self-defense it could be very hard for anyone to get to the proof and to prove a criminal case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney in Florida told MSNBC.
“I don’t want anyone to be unrealistic in terms of expectations as to where this ends up. It may already be too late to ever get a real prosecution out of this case.”
That devastating possibility would likely not surprise the very people who are calling for justice for Martin now, even as the calls for justice echo louder and louder.
“There’s a sense of, ‘When is the law going to arrive?’ When are we going to see some way in which justice isn’t something that has to be demanded but something that’s given to citizens in the country,” said Katheryn Russell-Brown, a law professor at the University of Florida.
“There has to be something done, some acknowledgement for this harm and the harm that I’m referring to is the  days and counting,” Russell-Brown said.
“Police tend to police poor people and young people of color when they don’t need to, and when we need them they’re not even there to give us the justice we deserve,” said Rios. Rios and Russell-Brown highlighted the simultaneous fatigue with the criminal justice system and outrage over the lack of movement so far.
Many are asking what exactly justice can look like in a criminal justice system which targets black males in particular, and so often fails to deliver even basic redress for victims of racialized, state-sanctioned violence. As the cases of Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo and Oscar Grant can attest, convictions are extremely difficult to procure, and verdicts, when they arrive, are invariably a bitter reminder of the myriad ways that the supposedly colorblind criminal justice system is structured against communities of color.
“By the time we get to the criminal justice system we’re in reactive mode—it may already be too late,” said Russell-Brown.