The Law Heard Round The World

Trayvon Martin's death raises the question, Can "Stand your ground" be defended?

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Christopher Morris for TIME

Trayvon Martinís father Tracy Martin and mother Sybrina Fulton on March 25 in Sanford, Fla.

Correction Appended: March 30, 2012

The killing of Trayvon Martin has kindled a moral and legal debate over race as searing as any since 1955, when 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. George Zimmerman, 28, a former altar boy and wannabe cop, fired the bullet that killed Martin, 17, on Feb. 26 in Sanford, Fla., outside Orlando. Zimmerman has said that Martin brutally assaulted him. But even if that's true, what kind of law would excuse Zimmerman's deadly shot?

When it comes to a confrontation on a dark street, at least two competing impulses come to mind: Do you stand your ground or turn the other cheek? Engage or run? Instinct, evolution, psychology and religion all offer different answers. But the law--which has to wrestle a moral conundrum into plain language--ends up as a blunt instrument trying to solve a delicate puzzle.

In 2005, Florida became the first state to expand an ancient rule of law called the castle doctrine. That doctrine says that if strangers enter your house without permission, you can use deadly force to defend yourself. The Florida legislature decided that the old common law should extend not only to the sidewalk outside your house but to "any other place where he or she has a right to be"--any street, any park, any store: anywhere.

Despite its breadth, only 20 of Florida's 153 legislators opposed the "Stand your ground" bill. Republican governor Jeb Bush signed the bill into law on April 26, 2005. Since then, at least 25 states have enacted similar expansions of the castle doctrine.

And yet from the beginning, many of Florida's prosecutors despised the law, which they know as 776.013 of the Florida statutes. When a killer claims he acted in self-defense, state's attorneys can't get a murder conviction under 776.013 unless they prove beyond a reasonable doubt--the strictest legal standard--that the dead person did not "attack" the killer, even in cases of a bar fight or a workplace shooting or a road-rage incident.

Consequently, many cops won't bother prosecutors with purported self-defense cases. The Sanford police department has officially released little information about why cops didn't arrest Zimmerman the night of Feb. 26. But on March 26, sources leaked some details: Zimmerman told police that Martin punched him in the face and then slammed his head into the sidewalk. Apparently at least one witness confirmed the latter part, although no one saw the initial punch. Also, the leaker said the bullet was fired into Martin's chest at very close range, which indicates Martin wasn't running away when Zimmerman shot him.

Leaks tend to spring in sinking vessels, which is why this reconstruction of events should be seen only as a rough (and possibly self-serving) draft of the truth. If it turns out that cops did find Zimmerman with a bloody nose and lacerations on the back of his head, the security-guard-gone-amok narrative may collapse. But in any case, the arriving officers made a choice: they didn't arrest Zimmerman.

All these questions lead back to the original one: How could Florida enact a law that lets killers go free so easily?

A New Presumption of Innocence

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