'Stand Your Ground' Law At Play In Zimmerman Trial

Audie Cornish speaks with David Ovalle about Florida's Stand Your Ground law and the ways it has been used in other cases in the state.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And that law came up last night during the press conference where the charge against George Zimmerman was revealed. Special prosecutor Angela Corey said prosecutors around the state deal with self-defense arguments based on the Stand Your Ground law all the time. And she said they're prepared to deal with them this time.

ANGELA COREY: If that law becomes an affirmative defense, just like alibi, insanity, entrapment or any of the other many affirmative defenses, we'll handle it accordingly.

CORNISH: Florida's Stand Your Ground law is relatively new. It was passed in 2005. For more on how it's played out in Florida courtrooms, we turn to David Ovalle, reporter for The Miami Herald. Hi there, David.

DAVID OVALLE: Hi. How are you?

CORNISH: So first of all, in the case of George Zimmerman, what sort of obstacle does the Stand Your Ground law present at this point for the prosecution?

OVALLE: Well, I think all the legal observers that are following this case expect that at some point, it could be a few months down the road, that Zimmerman's defense attorney will file a motion for immunity. What happens in Florida is that a judge will hold an evidentiary hearing. It would almost be like a mini trial where they will have to put on evidence and oftentimes a defendant will take the stand himself and the judge will decide by a looser standard than beyond a reasonable doubt, basically more likely than not, whether the defendant was acting in self-defense. So for the defense part, this is a great tool. You basically have another bite at the apple to try to prove your guy's innocence and get him off.

CORNISH: Before you ever see a jury.

OVALLE: Correct, before you ever see a jury.

CORNISH: Now, give us some examples of how this plays out. Take us through maybe a case where a defendant has used a Stand Your Ground self-defense argument and won immunity from charges and a situation where it hasn't worked.

OVALLE: Well, the most recent example was just a few weeks ago in Miami where a judge granted immunity to a Miami resident who chased down a burglar who had stolen the man's car radio. There was an altercation. The man had only a bag filled with car radios and allegedly swung it at the resident. And the guy responded by stabbing him to death. And, you know, there was questions of, you know, whether he was the aggressor because he chased him down, and ultimately, the judge ruled, no, he was immune from prosecution because he was acting in self-defense even though he chased him down.

But on the flipside, we have a pretty well-known case of a local college football player who was stabbed to death in a fight. The football player was unarmed. The assailant had a knife. And there was basically a scuffle. And he stabbed him to death. And the judge ruled that he was not immune from prosecution. That went ahead and set up a jury trial that has yet to happen.

CORNISH: So, David, you've given us these examples of how it's worked in individual cases. But how - what has that meant overall in the Florida court system?

OVALLE: Well, I think the overall effect of the Stand Your Ground law that was passed in 2005 is that you've seen the number of justifiable homicides jump from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. And it's definitely given a much harder job to police and prosecutors in trying to prove cases that maybe just a few years ago would have been relatively no-brainers to take to court. Definitely here in Miami and Broward in South Florida, you've had a lot of cases that, you know, either were not filed or were dropped halfway through the process or ultimately just got thrown out by a judge at some point in the process.

CORNISH: So what kind of ripple effects could the Trayvon Martin case have for courtrooms in Florida for other defendants?

OVALLE: Well, that's actually been one of the - and I've written a story about this where a lot of the criminal defense attorneys feel it will sort of be the Trayvon effect where a lot of lawyers are worried that there will be a backlash, that judges aren't going to want to rule in favor of immunity. And so they'll in essence punt it to juries even if maybe a few months ago it might have been a more viable self-defense. I think there's a real worry about the publicity. It's an election year in Florida for many of the judges, so people don't want any, you know, waves to be caused.

And I know lawyers, and I've talked to lawyers who absolutely say they're waiting to hold off on immunity motions so that, you know, they can wait until some of the publicity dies down.

CORNISH: So just to be clear here, when you say judges might want to punt it, a judge could effectively say I think a jury should decide this. I'm not going to decide this now, and it could come up later in a trial before a jury.

OVALLE: Right. The fear is that the judges will find legal reasoning to go ahead and deny a motion for immunity and play it safe and give it to a jury.

CORNISH: All right. David, thank you so much for explaining it to us.

OVALLE: Thank you.

CORNISH: Miami Herald reporter David Ovalle on the use of Stand Your Ground self-defense arguments in the Florida court system.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: