March 19th, 2012
03:56 PM ET

Opinion: Trayvon Martin, not George Zimmerman, was engaged in self-defense

Editor’s note: Carolyn Edgar is a lawyer and writer in New York City. She writes about social issues, parenting and relationships on her blog, Carolyn Edgar.  You can follow her on Twitter @carolynedgar.

By Carolyn Edgar, Special to CNN

(CNN) - Imagine the following scenario:

You are a 17-year-old boy in Sanford, Florida. You are visiting your father and his fiancée at your soon-to-be stepmother’s home in a gated community. You decide to make a late-night candy run to your local 7-Eleven. It’s nighttime and drizzling, so you are wearing a hooded sweatshirt. At the store, you buy a package of Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea, then head back home.

As you are walking home, you notice a man in an SUV following you. The man gets out of the car. He’s a big guy who outweighs you by 100 pounds. He doesn’t identify himself as a police officer – in fact, you don’t know who he is. What should you do next?

According to Florida’s justifiable use of force statute, you have the right to defend yourself. Section 776.012, in relevant part:

“A person is justified in using force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force.”

George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch captain who gunned down 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in his family’s gated community in Sanford, is relying on Florida’s self-defense statute to escape prosecution. Because Florida’s self-defense law affords immunity from prosecution for those who use justifiable force, Sanford Police Department have determined they have no basis to prosecute Zimmerman.

However, as more facts come to light, it seems that Martin, not Zimmerman, was exercising his statutory right to defend himself against a reasonable apprehension of unlawful force.

Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee has characterized Martin as the aggressor, based on the police department’s investigation. In an interview published by the Miami Herald, Lee asked rhetorically, “If someone asks you, ‘Hey do you live here?’ is it OK for you to jump on them and beat the crap out of somebody?” Lee said. “It’s not.”

Actually, in Florida, it might be.

Under the same self-defense statute that Zimmerman is relying on to avoid prosecution, Trayvon Martin also had the right to defend himself against a perceived threat of danger. Section 776.013 provides:

“A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

Trayvon Martin was a teenaged boy who was walking home from a convenience store. He was not engaged in an unlawful activity. He was in a place where he had a right to be – near the home of his father’s fiancée. George Zimmerman followed him, even after being told by the 911 dispatcher not to. Zimmerman left his vehicle holding a loaded gun and began pursuing Martin on foot. It is plausible to infer that Zimmerman, not Martin, initiated the attack. The tapes indicate that Zimmerman may have been the aggressor in initiating contact with Martin. Assuming the published reports are true, Martin, not Zimmerman, was exercising his lawful right to “stand his ground and meet force with force” by engaging in an altercation with Zimmerman.

By questioning why Martin didn’t simply stop and answer Zimmerman’s questions, and characterizing Martin as the aggressor, Sanford Police Department Chief Bill Lee Jr. appears to have assessed the Martin case using the standards that apply to law enforcement officers. This is wrong. Martin was under no legal duty to obey or to cooperate with Zimmerman in being questioned, because George Zimmerman is not a law enforcement officer.

Being the local neighborhood watch captain does not elevate him to that status. Nor was Zimmerman asked by any law enforcement officer to assist in detaining Martin – in fact, he was specifically told not to follow Martin. Zimmerman is entitled to none of the presumptions available to law enforcement officers under Florida law. The presumptions of acting in good faith that are afforded to law enforcement officers do not apply to Zimmerman.

If Zimmerman provoked the altercation with Martin, he is not entitled to claim self-defense. Under Section 776.041, use of force is not justifiable under the statute to a person who initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself, unless:

“(a) such force is so great that the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant; or (b) In good faith, the person withdraws from physical contact with the assailant and indicates clearly to the assailant that he or she desires to withdraw and terminate the use of force, but the assailant continues or resumes the use of force.”

Neither exception applies to Zimmerman. Martin was armed only with a bag of Skittles and a can of Arizona Iced Tea. Zimmerman had a 9mm handgun. The 911 tapes released by the Sanford Police Department feature the chilling sounds of Martin screaming for help in the background – screams that are silenced by a gunshot. Martin’s screams and cries for help indicate that, he was not a threat to Zimmerman when Zimmerman pulled the trigger.

Sanford Police Department officials have said no evidence refutes Zimmerman’s claim that he acted in self-defense, but the 911 tapes released by the Sanford Police Department suggest otherwise. Had Zimmerman withdrawn and waited for the police to handle the situation, as he was advised to do by the 911 dispatcher, Martin would be alive today.

Under Section 776.032 of the Florida Statutes, a person who uses force as permitted by law is immune from criminal prosecution as well as civil action. In reviewing this case to determine whether or not Zimmerman is in fact immune from prosecution, the Florida Attorney General must determine whether or not Zimmerman did in fact use force as permitted by law under Sections 776.012, 776.013, and 776.031.

The attorney general should consider the strong possibility that Zimmerman provoked the attack and that Martin was acting in self-defense – in which case, Zimmerman is not entitled to immunity and may be prosecuted for the death of Trayvon Martin.

The state of Florida owes the Martin family at least an investigation into this question.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Carolyn Edgar.

soundoff (1,141 Responses)
  1. Michael Seaman

    I do not agree with the ruling but as an American with one of the best court systems in the world HE WAS FOUND INNOCENT by his peers! One more question that has bothered me is that if he was WHITE or LATINO would all this be happening? I personally think not and as a white person without a bigoted bone in my body I am tired of being harassed for being white!

    July 21, 2013 at 7:09 am | Report abuse |
  2. mystified white man

    I don't care what George Zimmerman's statements were regarding the events leading to Trayvon's shooting, the facts are that Zimmerman followed an unarmed teenager and confronted him as he was walking directly to the place that he was staying. He followed him with a gun that was loaded and already had the bullet chambered in the weapon. If you want to make sure the kids not breaking into apartments then you follow him and catch him red-handed not confront him an elicit a confrontation which leads to a killing (REALLY! HE WANTED TO BE A COP! WHY? SO HE COULD KILL SOMEBODY?) OTher Facts presented that bother me are the wounds that are allegedly from Trayvon Martin slamming Zimmerman's head into the concrete, these don't seam like someone's head being slammed into the concrete to me, they appear to be burns that might be caused by rubbing from a wresting mat (which MMA gyms use for practice and Zimmerman was training 3 days a week at MMA for over a year) now this is speculation on my part but I've had millions of those exact injuries from wrestling mats because I wrestled in high school and College, and from my experience that is exactly the same injury. Also if these injuries were enough to merit killing someone then why didn;t he need to go to the hospital afterwards? Someone needs to explain this to me because In just don't get it and I don't think I ever will get it. As a gun owner I know if I chamber the weapon I am expecting to use it, I'm prepared to use it, and if I do use it I was backed into a corner and there was no way for me to avoid using it. I just don't see this in the uncontested factsof this case!

    July 16, 2013 at 11:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Greg

      I worked as a Police Officer for almost thirty year, I always had a round in the chamber of my pistol, you do not wait until something to happens to chamber a round into your weapon that is just enough time for you to get shot or stabbed to death.I thought it would be common practice to always have a round in the chamber with the safety on. Just seems like common sense to me.

      July 17, 2013 at 11:44 pm | Report abuse |
      • mystified white man

        Well in that light, why would you wait to take the safety off? That's going to cost you time fiddling with the safety. Point is he knew he was doing the wrong thing. He wasn't a police officer, and he needed to leave the police work up to the police. Report the incident, describe the suspect and his approximate location and leave the rest of it to someone who's trained to handle that type of situation. Which clearly Zimmerman wasn't trained to handle that type of situation. I'm sure as a former police officer you wouldn't recommend that someone approach a suspect as Zimmerman did Martin.

        July 18, 2013 at 4:05 am | Report abuse |
      • Greg

        Can not argue with the safety comment, unless you are carrying a Glock handgun . Also you are right about your comment that he should not have done anything else after He called the Police and they told him to stand down and wait until the Officers got there. I also agree with the training issue evidently there needs to be a SOP for the community watch programs cause you and I both know this whole thing has been handled wrong from the beginning , and hopefully this will never happen again if it ever ends. Lets all remember there are only two people that really know what happened and one of them lost his life and the other will never be the same again. Either way there are a lot of hurt people on both sides My God bless them all. You be safe and have a blessed day.

        July 20, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Dagobert II

    As this trial approaches its conclusion it is rapidly becoming evident that Martin was a feral criminal in the making who criminally assaulted Zimmerman and that Zimmerman lawfully and reasonably used deadly force to terminate Martin's assault.

    July 9, 2013 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Rretail Therapy

    "What would you do now?" How about run home and tell your parents someone was following you? What not to do is act like a smart ass and confront the person.

    July 9, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Fred Garven

    The problem is that the neighborhood is 100% private for the benefit of the owners and residents of Retreat at Twin Lakes. Zimmerman was a resident and Martin was not. This is a gated community and information to that effect is posted at all ingress and egress points. Zimmerman as a neighborhood watch (posted) captain had every right to ask a non-resident what his business was with the community. Had Martin just answered the question as a respectful guest (as he should have as he's on OPP), perhaps he's still be alive today.

    June 28, 2013 at 11:47 am | Report abuse |

    Why didn't George know blacks that live in tis gated community? Most gated places have an income requirement to live there . it looks to me like Martin's family was well-to-do. hope they use the other 911 taps because when this ne first broke they played one 911 tape that I could swear I heard another shot while the woman was talking. are they sure there was only one shot?

    June 25, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Report abuse |
  7. iwjwefepwfej

    Cool story, Carolyn, now all you have to do is prove it.

    January 6, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Michael

      She doesn't have to prove anything, she's merely commenting on this case. The position she takes and the point she makes was enough to make you concerned enough to say SHE had to prove it. The prosecution has the burden of proof, the defense may have to rebut this type of assertion if it's brought forth in open court.

      January 7, 2013 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
      • Tripp

        Micheal: I think you both need to go to Law School and understand a little more about self defense; criminal trespass; and right to defend. That also applies to the CNN author Carolyn. Carolyn's opinion like her CNN peer; Sonny Holston are based on very limited and segregated information; with obvious bias; and from the hostile commentary I see going on on the channel, is driven by something other than real facts, clarity, or journalism. Until someone performs voice forensics on the phone call; drop the issue of who was screaming, and get to the facts. From what other more non-partied news stations presenting, there have been a lot of 'facts' left out by order of the court that would put this case out of court.

        July 5, 2013 at 5:28 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Cosmo

    Boy you just come up with what ever you like with the facts of this case.

    July 20, 2012 at 12:58 am | Report abuse |
  9. Phone Therapy

    I'm really impressed with your writing abilities and also with the format to your blog. Is this a paid topic or did you modify it yourself? Either way stay up the nice quality writing, it's rare to peer a great blog like this one these days..

    April 21, 2012 at 9:48 am | Report abuse |
  10. The First Kiss

    Excellent issues altogether, you just gained a logo new reader. What might you recommend about your put up that you simply made some days ago? Any positive?

    April 2, 2012 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Tena

    If Trayvon had no marks on his hand, could he have used an open hand to bash Zimmermans head on the ground?

    March 30, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
  12. jwhitlock

    If the person shot was white and the shooter black, there would not have been this much uproar, Why can it not be brought out about the kids history? This is racism, but not against blacks, it is against whites. Obama SHOULD NOT HAVE GOTTEN INVOLVED. If again if he was white, Obama would not have said anything. Obama is as much white as black. He is not our first BLACK president.

    March 29, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kerry

      I think you must be feeling a little woozy, Mr. Whitlock. Maybe you should lay down, take a nap, get some rest...

      March 29, 2012 at 10:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • jb

      Your comment is just speculation...but probably right. If the shooter had been a black man, and the person shot a white teen, the outcry would not be the same. I doubt a "black shooter" would have walked though. He'd be in jail with a homicide charge, probably murder 1, with a very high bail if any bail at all. Think about that and "recognize fool". I'm white, by the way.

      April 2, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Report abuse |
      • Kerry

        Mr. Whitlock, I am concerned with how easy it is for you to blame the media, the dead kid, reverse racism, the President..., anyone other than 1) the individual who initiated the situation and who pulled the trigger, and 2) the Florida Legiislature, who wrote the legislation that allowed, and possibly demanded the Sanford police not arrest and charge this man so he could be judged by a jury of his peers. Had he been arrested and charged, none of this would be happening, and America has a right to be outraged.

        April 2, 2012 at 10:30 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Michael

    BOB again you have a formula with an equal sign with both sides of the equation saying the same thing only one is correct and therefore it is not equal, you are confusing yourself when you are trying to show you know something that you don't.

    March 29, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • MAFV

      Question to all posters. Does the Stand Your Ground Law apply at all to Trayvon? If so, does that make Zimmerman the aggressor?

      March 29, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
      • Michael

        The "Stand Your Ground Law" has never applied in this case, period.

        March 29, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
      • MAFV

        Why? Isn't Trayvon protected by the law just as Zimmerman is clamining to be.

        March 29, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
  14. michaelmariano

    I am a white male. Denhunter is clearly not seeing the facts due to what I see among us white males which is nothing but unAmerican blantant racism. Trayvon Martin legally can bash George Zimmermans face as much as he wants, he can beat him to death. That is what the law states. George Zimmerman under the law can not lay one finger on Trayvon according to the law. Trayvon was going home and doing nothing illegal. George Zimmerman went into pursuit and thus has to face the consequences of his decision, either he gets beat to death threatening a man going to his home, or he shoots a man going to his home and spends his life in prison. Either way that is George Zimmermans decision.

    March 27, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Michael

      If George Zimmerman is the one we hear screaming for help during the neighbors call to 911 that has been aired on TV, then I think someone would have helped him. I don't think it was Zimmerman calling for help. I think it was Trayvon right before he was shot. If there was a fight no one would have been shot if George Zimmerman did not have that gun, but I believe he never would have approached Trayvon without that gun. Self- defense does not me you can kill someone who is unarmed because you are losing a fight you caused. One more time, if Zimmerman had not brought a gun with him, he never would be able to claim self defense IF he was getting his ass kicked, which I don't believe happened the way he says it did. But you are right he had no right or authority to approach Trayvon at all.

      March 27, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4