The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
March 23, 2012
Race has emerged as the primary focus in the Trayvon Martin homicide. Martin’s
death is also a tragic example of law making gone awry. Martin, 17, was shot and
killed last month in Sanford, Florida by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch
captain, who thought Martin “looked suspicious.”
Zimmerman contends that he was authorized to use lethal force pursuant to
Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ law. No charges have been filed and the U.S. Department of Justice is
now investigating the case.
To add some perspective, a look at two very different legislative enactments
authorizing lethality would be instructive ...
First, the death penalty. Florida authorizes the use of lethal intravenous
drugs to cause the death of a person as punishment for the crime of first degree
murder. The punishment is imposed, after conviction and sentencing by a vetted
and impartial jury and countless reviews by various state and federal appellate
Second, the ‘stand your ground’ law. An individual can use lethal force in
the form of a gun, knife or other weapon to cause the death of a person in
Florida based on that single individual’s feeling of fear, developed in a matter
of seconds, often without any other witnesses.
Last year, Marshall Frank, a retired Miami-Dade Police homicide detective,
called for the repeal of Florida’s death penalty in a column published in the
Daytona Beach News-Journal. He wrote, “It's time for legislators to delve into
this hideous problem whereby a snail’s-pace appeals system stands in the way of
carrying out true justice … there should be a maximum time factor requiring appeals to be
filed and heard within two years, or else a sentence is automatically commuted
That is precisely the hypocrisy of these parallel laws that authorize
lethality. The U.S. Supreme Court has mandated a system of super due process for the death
penalty. For all its naysayers the death penalty is the most accurately
applied punishment in the world. The years that pass between crime, conviction
and execution are indicative of a deliberative and thoughtful process that
insures accuracy. Florida has 397 men and women on death row. Some have been
there for more than 40 years. The state has executed only eight inmates since 2007.
While the death penalty is under attack -- New Mexico, New York, New Jersey
-- have recently abolished the punishment, the castle doctrine and ‘stand your
ground’ legislation is being enacted, or expanded, in state after state.
Pennsylvania expanded the castle doctrine last year.
Yet, the ‘stand your ground’ law is anything but deliberative and thoughtful.
We lament the killer who is executed after trial and years of review, yet we
empower a single individual to make a split second decision -- suspicion, a
threat, fear -- ‘bang!’ There is no investigation, no trial, and no appeal. In
that split second, the individual is judge, jury and executioner.
A review by the St. Petersburg Times in October, 2010, five years after the
enactment of ‘stand your ground,’ found that the self-defense law had been invoked in 93 cases
resulting in 65 deaths.
This week Tony Norman of the Post-Gazette wrote, “Mr. Zimmerman is not a cop. He had no legal right to question a
law-abiding citizen based on his suspicions.”
Unfortunately, Florida and some 16 other states have given guys like
Zimmerman more than the right to question law-abiding citizens. Lawmakers have
empowered them to kill with impunity.
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