Most of the commentary on the Trayvon Martin case has focused on the growing mountain of evidence suggesting that shooter George Zimmerman, far from acting in “self defense,” was the instigator of the confrontation between the two late last month. But I keep coming back to a slightly different question: Are we really supposed to believe that this armed 28-year-old man was afraid for his life in a confrontation with a barely-17 boy who he outweighed by 100 pounds, at 7 o’clock in the evening, with many homes full of people a few dozen yards away? Because even if we ignored all the evidence and assumed Trayvon Martin had been the aggressor, Zimmerman’s decision to shoot his supposed attacker would only be protected by Florida’s now-notorious “Stand Your Ground” law if he had a reasonable belief that it was “necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself … or another.”
Some personal context here: About a year ago, walking home pretty late at night, I was assaulted—an attempted mugging—by not one but three teens about Trayvon Martin’s age. I wasn’t armed, and I certainly didn’t have Zimmerman’s 100-pound advantage over any of them. I am not anyone’s idea of a badass by any stretch: An unrepentant wonk in mediocre physical shape who had never been in a real fight in his adult life. Nor am I possessed of any extraordinary physical courage—ask my girlfriend how long it took me to work up the nerve to do a cliff jump if you want a chuckle sometime. But for all that, there was no time during the whole encounter when I feared for my life. I did, to be sure, fear a somewhat worse ass-kicking than I ended up having to endure, and was lucky to end up with only a few cuts and bruises. (I had the good fortune of a neighbor who, hearing a cry for help, opened the door to see if I needed help, rather than making a phone call and waiting—and I’m a little surprised not to see anyone remarking that there seems to be a bit of a Kitty Genovese aspect to the Martin tragedy.) But nothing about the circumstances suggested these (seemingly unarmed) kids were prepared to kill me over a little cash and a cell phone, and while I certainly felt entitled to fight back (as I did), it would never in a million years have occurred to me that lethal force was in order.
You always want to give the benefit of the doubt to a victim, who you can hardly expect to engage in perfectly cool rational deliberation in the face of an assault, but surely there are circumstances where the use of some force in self-defense is justified, but lethal force isn’t, at least as a first alternative. Even when someone “stands their ground,” studies suggest that when a gun is drawn for defensive purposes, an attacker will almost always break off an assault after a threat or a warning shot. So supposing we actually believed Zimmerman’s unbelievable story, could it have been remotely reasonable for him to think lethal force was necessary to defend himself from imminent death or grave bodily harm? He had no hope of holding the boy off for a few minutes until someone else arrived? No “I’ve got a gun” or “I’ll shoot” against an unarmed opponent? Maybe there’s some story he could tell at trial that would at least get you to reasonable doubt, but I don’t see why a jury would be forbidden from concluding that Zimmerman’s response was so wildly disproportionate to the threat that no reasonable person could regard it as necessary, even if they believe Martin threw the first punch. Not to be flip about it, but fistfights happen all the time—and I’ve got to assume that killing the guy who started it would not be a reasonable or justifiable resolution to the large majority of them.