Thompson on the Trayvon Martin shooting

Sandra ThompsonOn April 11, a special prosecutor in Florida charged a neighborhood watch captain with second-degree murder in the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager as he walked through a gated community.  The shooting prompted demonstrations and protests demanding charges be brought against the Hispanic watch member, George Zimmerman, in the death of Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was not initially arrested and his supporters justified the shooting under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Sandra Guerra Thompson, Law Foundation Professor of Law and director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston Law Center, answered a few questions about the charge and Zimmerman’s likely defense.

 What does a second degree murder charge mean?

To prove second degree murder, the prosecutor will have to prove that the killing was committed by an act that was “imminently dangerous to another and evincing a depraved mind regardless of human life.”  The government does not have to prove premeditation.  Since the crime was committed with a firearm, there is not usually any strong argument that the killing was not intentional, although under this statute the government does not technically have to prove an intent to kill.

Is it a fitting charge for what we know of the circumstances?

It is hard to know at this point exactly how the killing occurred.  From what I have heard through the media, it does appear to be a reasonable charge.  If a jury found Mr. Zimmerman to present some mitigating circumstances, it is possible that they could find him guilty of a lesser charge such as involuntary manslaughter.  To give typical examples, second degree murder of this type is usually applied to an intentional rage killing, whereas involuntary manslaughter is applied to the bar fight that unintentionally turns into a killing.

How will Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law play into Zimmerman’s defense?

If the jury believes that the victim “attacked” Mr. Zimmerman and that Mr. Zimmerman “reasonably believed” it was “necessary” to use” deadly force” to prevent “death or great bodily injury,” then it would appear that Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law would apply. If the jury finds that Mr. Zimmerman accosted the victim and attempted to apprehend him, then the defense should not apply.

Does Texas have such a law?

Texas adopted a similar provision in 2007. The difference between these two provisions and the traditional self-defense formulation is that there is no duty to “retreat” if it is possible to retreat safely.  The traditional defense allowed the use of deadly force only when absolutely necessary.  If one can safely run or drive away, then it is not absolutely necessary to use deadly force.  The requirement that one run away was considered by some to be unfair to the person attacked who should be allowed to stand his or her ground.  Opponents viewed these laws as a dangerous invitation to people to use deadly force in situations in which it was not necessary.

In your opinion, did public pressure play a role in prosecutors moving forward with a charge?

A prosecutor’s role involves a complex balancing of interests so as to achieve “justice.”  In this case, they, like everyone else, were undoubtedly aware of the public demands for charges to be brought.  To what extent the pressure played a role is harder to say.  Obviously, prosecutors should be responsive to the concerns of the community as a general matter, however, in an individual case they should not be pressured into acting in ways that would be unjust to the potential defendant.  I presume in this case, after carefully reviewing all of the available evidence, the prosecutor determined that this charge could be proven and was most appropriate.

To schedule an interview with Sandra Guerra Thompson, please contact: Carrie Criado, Executive Director of Communications and Marketing, cacriado@Central.UH.EDU, 713.743.2184; or John Kling, Communications Manager, jtkling@central.uh.edu , 713.743.8298.