Monday, March 19, 2012

Florida: A Fine Place To Get Shot And Killed

In Florida, a man shot and killed a teenager because he thought the kid looked suspicious. The boy was guilty of buying skittles and iced tea, and walking on the sidewalk in the gated community where his father lives.

The national media has picked up the story and run with it. "The guy was a racist," seems to be the prevailing opinion.

But the race of the boy (or the shooter, a hispanic man), is immaterial. The biggest issue is the law that let the shooter get away with murder.

In Florida, it's perfectly legal to shoot someone and kill them. You will not be charged with a crime. All you need to do is claim self-defense. And that's it. You're off, scot-free.

According to a state website explaining the law:
Q. When can I use my handgun to protect myself? A. Florida law justifies use of deadly force when you are: Trying to protect yourself or another person from death or serious bodily harm; Trying to prevent a forcible felony, such as rape, robbery, burglary or kidnapping.

The problem is... this is all pretty vague. "Serious bodily harm?" What is that?

The page cites an example of an altercation where Florida law wouldn't allow you to shoot someone dead:

Example of the kind of attack that will not justify defending yourself with deadly force: Two neighbors got into a fight, and one of them tried to hit the other by swinging a garden hose. The neighbor who was being attacked with the hose shot the other in the chest. The court upheld his conviction for aggravated battery with a firearm, because an attack with a garden hose is not the kind of violent assault that justifies responding with deadly force.

Now, Trayvon Martin didn't have a garden hose. He had a pack of skittles. Iced tea. The only weapon he had were his hands. The man who shot him outweighed him by several pounds and was much older.

We don't know for sure who physically attacked who first. What is clear is that George Zimmerman, the shooter, was following the boy with the intention of confronting him. If it hadn't been for Zimmerman's actions, no altercation would have taken place.

What we have then is a scenario quite different from the one imagined on Florida's government website. This is not two neighbors fighting with garden hoses. In this scenario, a man started a confrontation with a boy, and when the argument turned violent, that man whipped out a pistol and shot the boy in the chest.

If this is allowed to happen, with no charges filed, no arrests made, then what precedent does it set?? If this is the way the police interpret Florida's self-defense law, then is anything preventing any of these scenarios:

1. Man decides he wants to kill somebody, anybody. Walks down the street, deliberately goads a stranger into a fight. Purposely loses the upper hand, whips out his pistol, fires. Stranger is dead.

2. Man decides he wants to kill his wife. He shoots her. Puts a kitchen knife in her hand. "It was her or me, officers," he says.

3. Man sees suspicious-looking youths loitering in front of his store. He calls them a derogatory cuss word, tells them to leave the sidewalk. The kids yell back. One youth approaches. The man whips out his pistol, shoots him, claiming he feared the boy had a gun.

In the first scenario, the guy is a deranged lunatic. But none of that matters, according to Florida's self-defense laws. There is no way to prove the man's intentions to kill. All the evidence we have is the encounter on the street. Witnesses who arrive late to the scene may never see what started to altercation. They only see a man being attacked. The killer walks.

In the second scenario, the guy is a calculated killer. But where is the evidence of his intentions? Maybe the wife confided in friends and relatives that she feared her husband. But if she didn't? All you have is a guy trying to protect himself from his knife-wielding wife. The killer walks.

In the third scenario, the guy is paranoid. He sees youths, possibly of a different race, and he assumes they're there to rob his store. He initiates the entire conflict with his paranoia and racism. But he was, after all, outnumbered, and its perfectly understandable that he thought he was going to be attacked. Does he walk?

My point is, the Florida law creates an enormous gray area, where the difference between murder and self-defense comes down to unknowable intentions and differing points-of-view. The law shouldn't be something that rests upon the nuances of a crime. It should rest on the facts. A sure sign that a law is no good is when it's seemingly applied at random.

Trayvon Martin is dead because of George Zimmerman. This is a fact. But the law that allows Zimmerman to remain free? That's based on nothing more than assumptions. What kind of legal system treats the facts of the case with contempt while giving priority to the paranoid feelings of a narcissistic neighborhood watch captain?

Well, the Florida legal system.

It's bad enough the state is known as a place where old people come to die. If shootings like this keep happening, it'll be known as a place where the young come to die as well.

UPDATE (3/20): Slate basically agrees with everything I wrote, in their article, which I read this morning. They provide a few real world examples beyond the Martin case.

UPDATE 2: The FBI and DOJ are now investigating the matter.

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