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The Construction of Legal Standards

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Fortunately, it seems now that there will at a minimum be a serious investigation into the killing of Trayvon Martin. Should Zimmerman not be prosecuted (assuming no additional facts exonerating him emerge), however, I argue that it’s not as simple as saying that the Florida self-defense law did it:

Still, it is important to note that this is not quite a case where a bad statute has compelled a tragically unjust result. To be sure, the Florida self-defense law is terrible. But, nonetheless, the language of the law requires that a perceived threat be “reasonable.” To put it mildly, it is far from self-evident that Zimmerman’s perception of threat of “death or great bodily harm” was reasonable. Given that 1) Martin was armed only with Skittles, 2) Zimmerman outweighed Martin by about 100 pounds, 3) when Zimmerman encountered Martin the former was in an SUV while the latter was on foot, 4) that Martin was not engaged in any criminal activity when Zimmerman stopped to accost him, and 5) the police specifically told Zimmerman not to engage with Martin, it seems clear that Zimmerman’s alleged fear for his life was presumptively unreasonable. Certainly, the police have the discretion to charge him under the language of the statute unless they know something they aren’t revealing. Some, but not all Florida judges have held that the statute grants immunity to killers like Zimmerman.

If Zimmerman gets away with killing Martin, it’s not just the statute that bears responsibility. It’s how Florida’s policemen, prosecutors, judges, and juries have constructed its ambiguous language.

Don’t get me wrong: the law is really terrible, and the bad consequences were entirely predictable. But, still, if George Zimmerman’s actions are construed as “reasonable” that’s a construction of various actors, not a requirement of the law itself.

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