Justice Florida-style: will this vigilante get away with murder?
Public outcry after self-styled neighbourhood watch man seeks protection of controversial self-defence law
THE DEATH of an unarmed black teenager shot by a vigilante in Florida has raised a furore over gun laws and the right to self-defence, prompting investigations by both the Department of Justice's civil rights division, which investigates racially motivated crimes, and a local grand jury.
Trayvon Martin, 17, was shot dead on a private gated estate in Sanford, near Orlando, by George Zimmerman, who patrolled the community in his self-appointed role for neighbourhood watch, armed - legally - with a 9mm semi-automatic pistol.
Twenty-eight-year-old Zimmerman claims he believed the teenager was behaving "suspiciously" and assumed he was a prowler. He says he confronted Trayvon Martin and then shot him in self-defence. Because of a controversial state law, police took no action.
Friends, family and half a million Americans who have signed an online petition for justice claim Zimmerman's actions were little more than cold-blooded murder.
The view is supported by the fact that when Zimmerman called in his suspicions about Martin on the night of 26 February, he was clearly told by the 911 dispatcher that there was no need to follow the teenager. He chose to ignore the advice.
In the latest development, a 911 tape obtained by ABC television reveals that seconds before the fatal shooting Zimmerman can be heard saying under his breath what sounds like "f***ing coons".
ABC has also obtained tapes of Martin talking on the telephone with his 16-year-old girlfriend moments before he died. He was aware that Zimmerman was following him as he walked home to his father's girlfriend's house after going out to buy sweets – a packet of Skittles - and iced tea at a local convenience store.
"He said this man was watching him, so he put his hoodie on," the teenage girl told ABC. "He said he lost the man."
"I asked Trayvon to run, and he said he was going to walk fast. I told him to run but he said he was not going to run."
After a few minutes, the girl said, Martin thought he was safe. But Zimmerman reappeared.
"Trayvon said, 'What are you following me for?'" the girl said. "And the man said, 'What are you doing here?' Next thing I hear is somebody pushing, and somebody pushed Trayvon because the [phone's] headset just fell."
Quite what happened next is the subject of nationwide debate.
Reports say a voice cried out for help, then there were two shots, then silence. Zimmerman told police that he was being held on the ground by Martin when he shot him, but Martin's family say that the voice crying for help is Martin's.
Zimmerman claims the right to kill Martin under Florida's 'Stand Your Ground' law, which was approved by Governor Jeb Bush in 2005.
As the New York Times reports, this controversial law states that a person who is threatened does not have to retreat from the encounter in order to claim self-defence. In other words, you don't need to be running away from, or backing off from, an assailant, to claim self-defence: you can stand your ground and use deadly force to confront the person you believe is threatening you.
Even some police and prosecutors have derided the measure, saying it fosters a shoot-first, ask-questions-later mentality and gives criminals a pass on facing justice. Claims of justifiable homicide have tripled in Florida since the law was passed.
Following the public outcry at the authorities' refusal to prosecute Zimmerman – students in Florida have organised demonstrations and New York's veteran civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton has intervened - the Department of Justice has ordered the FBI to investigate and the Florida state attorney yesterday ordered a grand jury to start hearing evidence on 10 April.
The Miami Herald reports that an arrest could hinge on whether prosecutors believe Zimmerman acted unreasonably when he confronted Martin.
The fact that the 911 dispatcher advised Zimmerman not to follow the teenager could be crucial. "If he was attacked, he can stand his ground," said retired Miami-Dade prosecutor David Waksman, who is not involved in the case. "But if police say back off and we'll take care of it, he's not covered by the law."
Legal experts believe that if Zimmerman is charged, it will be for manslaughter and not murder. Others believe he is clearly protected by the law.
"I think absolutely this is a case that squarely falls within the Stand Your Ground immunity statute," said defence attorney Bill Matthewman. "Even if he shouldn't have been following [Martin] he's not committing a crime and he can stand his ground."
The case is further confused by the issue of Zimmerman's colour. The fact that the police have described him as a white man has helped support the popular view that this was a racist killing. But Zimmerman's father told the Sun Sentinel that his son is actually half Hispanic and has many black family members. "He would be the last to discriminate for any reason whatsoever," he said. "The media portrayal of George as a racist could not be further from the truth."
That was before the"f***ing coons" revelation.