Joanne Knight

April 11, 2012

Trayvon Martin: Death of the rule of law

Filed under: human rights — joanneknight @ 10:59 pm
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George Zimmerman has finally been charged with the shooting of Trayvon Martin, not by the police but by the State Attorney’s Office. By allowing Zimmerman to walk away and remain free for 44 days, the rule of law and due process have been fundamentally undermined. The Florida police have failed in their duty to the law, to the community and to Trayvon Martin’s family, hiding behind the Florida Stand Your Ground law.

Zimmerman made a fateful decision that night when he chose to disregard the police dispatcher’s statement to await the arrival of the police and not to follow his “suspect.” A 911 call records the voice of someone screaming for help outside of the caller’s home. Video released from the police station where Zimmerman was taken in handcuffs on the night of the shooting, shows Zimmerman with no marks on him, throwing into doubt his claims of self defense. Sanford Police claim that they could not charge Zimmerman under the 2005 Florida Stand Your Ground law. Florida police seem to have been convinced that Zimmerman managed to escape from a violent attack, where he was screaming desperately for help, without a mark.

The Stand Your Ground law, created in response to fierce lobbying by the National Rifle Association, has coupled immunity from being arrested, detained in custody, charged, or prosecuted with a presumption of reasonable fear when a person acts in self-defense when attacked in their own home. To claim self-defense and immunity for a violent act occurring outside their home, the accused individual needs to establish the reasonable use of force in response to an attack. The Florida statute prohibits law enforcement from arresting a person for using force unless there is probable cause that the injured or deceased party had not unlawfully or forcefully entered the accused person’s home.

Unfortunately for Trayvon Martin’s family and for justice in the United States, there is no way to review a grant of immunity once granted. Barry University Assistant Professor of Law Elizabeth Megale argues that when law enforcement decides a person is entitled to immunity, the statute does not provide a way for the prosecutor to review the case and withdraw that immunity, if warranted. Megale contends that there are no guidelines for police to apply in exercising this judgment to grant immunity.

The rule of law means that no one is above the law, but it appears that under certain circumstances that certain individuals who take the law into their own hands and meet out their own justice are in fact above the law. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter said: There can be no free society without law administered through an independent judiciary. If one man can be allowed to determine for himself what is law, every man can. That means first chaos, then tyranny.’ (United States v. United Mine Workers (1947)) George Zimmerman decided what the law was in relation to Trayvon Martin that fateful night. Since the law was enacted, justified homicides in Florida have jumped threefold, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Due process is a fundamental right and the backbone of the rule of law. It means that everyone is entitled to a fair and impartial hearing to determine their legal rights. The accused enjoys a presumption of innocence. This presumption is not a right, but a privilege that is attached to the way various “burdens” are laid out in evidence law. The State bears the tough standard of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the crime was committed. The State bears this burden to protect the accused from arbitrary prosecution. However, if the State refuses to discharge this burden by failing to arrest someone we are in danger of descending into anarchy.

The testing of evidence is closely entwined with due process. In criminal justice, fairness in procedure and the testing of evidence, connects with fairness in outcome. If the State fails to carry out its responsibility to gather sufficient evidence to establish probable cause, there is no opportunity to test the evidence in court.

The police have now handed the case over to the State Attorney’s office and abdicated all responsibility. It appears there are serious questions as to whether the police discharged their responsibility to the community in investigating Treyvon Martin’s death. In granting George Zimmerman immunity without questioning witnesses and investigating phone records, it seems unlikely that they could determine whether sufficient evidence to charge Zimmerman. The balance of powers doctrine, in which the branches of government, the executive, judiciary and legislature act as checks on one another, has been subverted in this case. The courts act as a check on the power of the police, as well as the government.

Some argue that the Florida Stand Your Ground law has no application in this case. Tim Lynch, Director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute, contends that the law only applies to very narrow situations such as home break in or being attacked on the street. Lynch reasons that in pursuing Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman became the aggressor. Under these circumstances, if Martin became aggressive towards Zimmerman, it could in fact be seen as being in response to Zimmerman’s provocation. In addition, because Martin was not armed, a gunshot in response to a thrown punch could be deemed outside the laws of self-defense. Tim Lynch postulates that in the use of a gun against an unarmed man, the police could establish probable cause and arrest Zimmerman. It seems in failing to do so they have perverted the rule of law and the right to due process.

The police turned a blind eye to Zimmerman’s crime and finally washed their hands of making a decision to arrest him. It seems to display a contempt for the rule of law and willingness to, at best, wink at vigilante violence. The Stand Your Ground law seems to allow such attitudes to flourish.


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