Trayvon Martin: Justifiable Homicide or Hate Crime?

The whole country is watching as George Zimmerman may face charges stemming from his shooting of 17 year old Trayvon Martin in Florida.  The Justice Department is considering filing hate crime charges while the State authorities determine whether a murder charge is appropriate.  The short answer is that likely neither are appropriate.

The first thing that needs to be determined is whether the killing was a justifiable homicide.  This means that there is some legal defense for the killing.  In Florida, a law called the “stand your ground” law exists.  A stand-your-ground law states that a person may use deadly force in self-defense when there is reasonable belief of a threat, without an obligation to retreat first.  The most important question to ask here is whether the belief of a threat was reasonable.  When language like this exists in a criminal law, it creates a reasonable person standard: what would a reasonable person in the same circumstances have done?

Would a reasonable person have believed that unarmed Trayvon Martin was a real threat under the circumstances?  Zimmerman got close enough to him to see that he was in fact unarmed.  They had a scuffle, and Zimmerman was allegedly injured in the process.  17 year old Martin was 6’3″ and 140 lbs.  28 year old Zimmerman is 5’9″ and 250 lbs.   That’s quite a difference in sizes.  Weighing nearly 2 times as much as him, Zimmerman should have been able to subdue Martin.  What reasonable threat of death or serious bodily injury could Zimmerman possibly have feet that would make it appropriate to shoot and kill this 17 year old boy?

This was not a justifiable homicide.  Reports say that Zimmerman was inconsolable after the shooting.  Unfortunately for Zimmerman, this is not a defense to criminal homicide.  It’s not a justifiable homicide, but is it murder?  Probably not.  This is likely a case of imperfect self defense; voluntary manslaughter.  Zimmerman used a gun in the commission of the crime.  In California, this would enhance the sentence and require that Zimmerman serve more time in state prison.  Florida has similar laws and therefore if Zimmerman is convicted of voluntary manslaughter, he will serve more time in prison because of his use of a firearm.  Further, Federal law also requires mandatory enhancements for crimes using a firearm, so if he is charged with and convicted of a federal offense, more time will be applied to his sentence.

The justice department has released a statement that it will investigate Zimmerman for a federal hate crime violation.  Hate crime laws require that the act or criminal intent come from a place of (in this case) racial bias.  In other words, did George Zimmerman kill Trayvon Martin because he was black?  By reading the reports of the encounter between them, it does not appear that Martin was targeted simply because he was black.  Reports are surfacing that Zimmerman is not a racist and has several African-American friends.  This doesn’t mean that he is incapable of a hate crime, simply that it is unlikely that prosecutors will be able to paint him as a racist.

The truth here probably lies where the truth can usually be found, somewhere in the middle.  Zimmerman encountered Martin in the dark and unreasonably feared for his safety.  Acting on this unreasonable fear, he fatally shot the unarmed 17 year old boy.  This is most likely a case of voluntary manslaughter with a gun enhancement.  Nevertheless, it is a horrible tragedy for everyone involved.