Our View | Zimmerman case should prompt re-examination of laws, attitudes

July 20, 2013 

The controversial ruling in the George Zimmerman trial has many people questioning “Stand Your Ground” laws and an individual’s right to use deadly force in moments of self-defense.

This verdict was a product of Florida’s law, which gave the Zimmerman jury cause to find him not guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

But a teenager is dead for no reason and his family is grieving.

And that tragedy can be tied to human failings such as poor judgment and fear based on differences of race and age — factors that reach beyond the language of any law.

We all should worry about what could happen in our own neighborhoods, to our own children — who might pass by someone who sees trouble just because of a person’s age, skin color or clothing. Someone whose fear might spark a reaction with senseless and devastating consequences.

The Florida case has citizens and elected officials taking another look at their laws, including here in Pennsylvania, where the statutes are more restrictive than those in Florida.

This is a necessary reaction to this verdict.

“Anytime these things happen, it’s worth reviewing your own situation,” said state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, who called the Martin shooting “very tragic.”

Florida’s law allows for the circumstances that led to Martin losing his life and Zimmerman walking from his trial a free man. The teen was pursued by Zimmerman, who was suspicious that Martin was up to no good in a neighborhood that had seen an increase in crime. Martin turned and confronted Zimmerman, who shot the teen in what the jurors decided was an act of self-defense even though Zimmerman initiated the incident and Martin was unarmed.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday said Martin’s death was “unnecessary,” and called for a federal investigation into the events of that night in February 2012.

“It’s time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods,” Holder said. “These laws try to fix something that was never broken. There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if — and the ‘if’ is important — no safe retreat is available.”

Zimmerman, a community watch volunteer, had been told by police to not pursue Martin, an order he ignored. Martin is black, so racial profiling is a possible factor. Martin was wearing a dark hooded sweatshirt, common attire for today’s young people.

If Zimmerman had allowed police to handle the matter, circumstances would likely have turned out quite differently. But his fear, or perhaps thoughts of being a hero, got the better of him. He left his vehicle in pursuit, carrying a loaded weapon.

In 2011, “Stand Your Ground” language was added to expand Pennsylvania’s Castle Doctrine law, which had previously allowed individuals to use force to protect themselves in their homes.

Now in Pennsylvania, use of deadly force outside the home is permissible in certain circumstances.

First, you must be able to show that you were acting to protect yourself or another “against death, serious bodily injury, kidnapping or sexual intercourse compelled by force or threat,” the law says.

The law only covers you if you’re legally permitted to be in possession of a firearm, and in the admittedly gray areas where you did not provoke the encounter, or where you use extreme measures only when there is no opportunity to retreat safely.

“You have to retreat unless you are facing deadly force or cannot retreat,” said Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller. She pointed to the 2012 murder conviction of Tyler Marlatt, who had argued self-defense in the stabbing death of Tyler Struble during a confrontation over a State College drug deal.

“(Marlatt) claimed self-defense,” Parks Miller said. “It was rejected.”

The law does not apply if the person you believe poses a serious threat is a police officer.

“We tried, with our law, to strike a balance, so that people who felt that they were in some danger had the ability to protect themselves,” Corman said. “At the same time, you can’t be reckless either.”

Pennsylvania’s law might look better than Florida’s.

But a law can’t protect us from our own poor decisions — or from the poor decisions of others — or from the fears and biases that might affect our actions.

A law is only as good as the people interpreting it, in courtrooms and during encounters on our streets.

Martin would still be alive if Zimmerman had let the police handle the situation, rather than pursuing and confronting Martin for nothing more than being a young black kid wearing a hoodie at night.

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