With the controversy over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and the later arrest of George Zimmerman, there has been a great deal of confusion in the media over what self defense is and how the Stand Your Ground law in Florida and many other States applies. A great deal of totally irrelevant issues are being brought into the matter which confuse something that is really pretty simple.
I am not a lawyer, but I studied Virginia’s Case Law on self defense extensively during the Ryan Frederick trial, so perhaps I can make this a bit more understandable.
Self defense is a natural right, and a legal defense of necessity. Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law is really little different from Virginia’s Common law on the subject. Though we have no written law specifying it in our code, Virginia is a Stand Your Ground State.
All that really means is that if you are in a place you are legally entitled to be, your own home, car, or a public street or place of business, you need not retreat before defending yourself, with deadly force, if you are in reasonable fear of loss of life or serious harm from the unprovoked felonious act of another.
Whether the threat is reasonable must be determined from your point of view, even if you are in error. If you see someone running toward you brandishing a knife, you shoot him, and it is later discovered to have been a rubber knife, you were still acting on reasonable fear. However, ‘bare fear’ is not adequate. Simply because you see someone as menacing or even if they threaten you, there must be some overt act of immediate threat to justify force in self defense.
Likewise, if an unarmed person attacks you with his fists, and you reasonably believe you are in peril because you do not believe you are able to defend yourself confidently other than with deadly force, you can defend yourself with a weapon. Again, that belief must be reasonable as seen from your point of view. If your assailant is a 10 year old girl and you are an adult male, it would not be reasonable to believe you are in danger of being beaten to death.
But if you are in reasonable fear of serious injury or death, you can ‘Stand Your Ground’ and defend yourself with deadly force. If you kill your assailant, you have an affirmative defense of necessity. These cases are called ‘Justifiable Homicide.’
But what if you in some way provoked the attack, such as participating a brawl, or even if you were the aggressor? You still have the right to defend yourself with deadly force if you are in reasonable fear of loss of life or serious injury, but, you now have a duty to retreat. You must make it clear to your opponent you wish to quit the fight and then retreat as far as possible before escalating to the use of deadly force. Still, even if you were initially in the wrong, you are not required to submit to execution by your opponent if he persists in the attack after you have withdrawn or if he will not allow you to withdraw. These cases of the use of deadly force in self defense after retreat are known as ‘Excusable Homicide’ but it is still a valid defense.
So, how does this apply to Zimmerman’s claim of self defense? If, as reported, Martin had Zimmerman on his back and was beating his head on the pavement, then the Stand Your Ground law is irrelevant. You can’t retreat into the ground, so even if he had a duty to retreat, it was satisfied.
Whether Zimmerman uttered a racial epithet to the police dispatcher, or profiled Martin because of race, or even if he struck the first blow is irrelevant. Zimmerman could have been in full KKK regalia and screaming racial taunts at the top of his lungs, or Trayvon Martin could have been a uniformed policeman, once Zimmerman was on his back, unable to retreat any further, and in danger of losing consciousness(after which his opportunity to defend himself would no longer exist) he had the absolute right to defend himself by any means necessary, not just in Florida or Virginia, but in any State in the Union.
You can be executed only by the State, and only after a trial by jury. There is literally nothing you can do which would require you to submit to execution by another person under any circumstance.
So, unless there is information held secret by the prosecutor, it is hard to imagine any reason for a 2nd Degree murder charge. Or any lesser charge, for that matter.