"We saw a parade of hypotheticals by those who opposed this... What's important is the message it sends, and that's, 'don't attack me.'" - National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer, comment to The Tallahassee Democrat, 5/12/2005
George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who confronted, shot, and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, has not been arrested or charged with any crime after pleading self-defense. While critics have pointed out that this claim is dubious given that Zimmerman was both much larger that Martin and armed, legal experts say that Florida's "Stand Your Ground" self-defense law could prevent him from ever being successfully prosecuted.
McClatchy Newspapers reports that "legal experts say Zimmerman, if arrested, would probably be charged with manslaughter and not murder -- and would have a strong defense under Florida's law, with a judge needing to decide first whether he is immune from prosecution." As Mother Jones points out, Florida courts have found that under that statute, "defendant's only burden is to offer facts from which his resort to force could have been reasonable" while "the State has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense."
While the NRA's Hammer scoffed at the "parade of hypotheticals" cited by those who opposed Florida's 2005 passage of the law, the concerns of those prosecutors who raised alarm at the statute both at the time and since now seem prophetic.
In a 2005 interview with UPI, former prosecutor and Democratic state representative Dan Gelber warned of the bill, which he voted against:
"Two people in an altercation, that happens every day. Someone thinks you're looking at their wife the wrong way, somebody spills coffee on you, someone bumps into you, someone cuts you off, then all of a sudden they're in a fight... Do we tell those people that they're supposed to walk away or do we tell them that you're supposed to stand your ground and fight to the death?"
In an April 2005 appearance on CBS Evening News, former Miami prosecutor Katie Phang had this exchange with the network's Jim Acosta about the law's passage:
ACOSTA: Former Miami prosecutor Katie Phang wonders how the legal system would sort out a bar fight that escalates into a firefight.
Ms. PHANG: Who's going to start claiming self-defense? Who's going to start saying what was reasonable? What wasn't? There used to be a time when the jury would decide that, but now? Now it's going to be who has the better aim, in my opinion.
ACOSTA: Dead men don't talk.
Ms. PHANG: I guess not.
In May 2005, shortly after the bill was signed into law, State Attorney Willie Meggs, then- president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association told The Tallahassee Democrat:
"Let's say your teenage son gets into a fight at school and a bunch of kids winds up yelling at your front door that night... You think, 'Uh-oh, we're being threatened.' Is that a valid defense? I don't know."
In 2010, after a judge ruled that two men were immune from prosecution in a gang-related shooting that killed a 15-year-old bystander, Meggs said:
"Basically this law has put us in the posture that our citizens can go out into the streets and have a gun fight and the dead person is buried and the survivor of the gun fight is immune from prosecution."
In 2006, Paul A. Logli, president of the National District Attorneys Association, said of such laws:
They're basically giving citizens more rights to use deadly force than we give police officers, and with less review.
In January 2012, former Broward County prosecutor David Frankel told Florida's Sun-Sentinel:
"It is an abomination... The ultimate intent might be good, but in practice, people take the opportunity to shoot first and say later they had a justification. It almost gives them a free pass to shoot."