Ignoring race a mistake in Zimmerman trial

July 20, 2013 

In a misguided attempt to avoid a discussion of race in the criminal case against George Zimmerman, the State of Florida created the conditions for a miscarriage of justice.

Race was an important factor in Trayvon Martin’s death, not just factually but legally as well. The state’s attempt to de-racialize the case made it impossible for the jury to determine properly Zimmerman’s criminal liability for Martin’s death. Florida’s Stand Your Ground law was not the principal problem.

Self-defense is a fundamental right, universally recognized in every American state. Generally, the principle underlying this right is that when a person is threatened unlawfully with imminent harm, he has a right to use whatever force is necessary to defend himself; if the unlawful threat is deadly, the person threatened has a right to respond in kind.

Stand Your Ground laws alter these principles by eliminating any need for the person threatened with unlawful harm to retreat, even if he could do so safely. Under these laws, sometime called Make My Day laws, the victim of an unlawful threat of death or serious bodily injury can respond with deadly force even if it is possible to retreat safely.

Most of the questions focused on whether Zimmerman had a right to use deadly force in response to what he claimed was Martin’s use of deadly force against him. Juror B-37, for example, has suggested that Martin was at least partially responsible for his own death; “When George confronted him . . . [Martin] could have walked away and gone home. He didn’t have to do whatever he did and come back and be in a fight.” Even if that were true, however, under Florida law Martin had no obligation to walk away; he had a right to stand his ground.

What Juror B-37, some of the public and commentators on cable television fail to appreciate is that whether a person has a right to stand his ground in a confrontation depends upon who initially made the unlawful threat of imminent harm. If, based on the circumstances known to him, Martin reasonably believed that Zimmerman’s conduct posed an imminent threat of harm, he had a right to use whatever force was necessary to prevent the harm.

Moreover, if Zimmerman displayed his gun in the course of the confrontation, Martin might have had the right to respond with deadly force. So if Zimmerman was the initial aggressor, as Juror B-37 seems to believe (“George started the ball rolling”), his threat of harm would have been unlawful and his subsequent use of deadly force in response to Martin’s lawful defensive force almost certainly would have been manslaughter.


In the aftermath of any mutual combat, there are two threshold issues relevant to self-defense: first, who unlawfully threatened whom and, second, did the person who was threatened respond with reasonable defensive force. The initial aggressor does not have a subsequent right of self-defense against lawful defensive force; his response in that situation is criminal. These are well-established principles, even under Stand Your Ground laws.

Under these principles, race was an unavoidable factor in deciding whether Martin’s death was a criminal homicide.

Juror B-37 reported that the jury never discussed Zimmerman’s racial profiling of Martin. That confirms my belief that the state made a mistake in avoiding a discussion of race. Rachel Jeantel heard Martin say during their phone conversation, “Don’t touch me!” If Martin reasonably perceived whatever was going on to be a threat of physical harm, he had a right to respond with defensive force.

Zimmerman’s conduct at that moment would have been unlawful, resulting from his racially motivated assumption that Martin was “up to no good.” Race is the only explanation that has been offered for Zimmerman’s conduct.

The jury apparently began its deliberations at the point Martin hit Zimmerman. But, by ignoring all that happened up to that point, the jury failed to consider whether Martin’s blow was defensive and thus legal.

That was a threshold issue to be decided.

Beyond the legal deficiency of the jury’s deliberations, Juror B-37 and perhaps other jurors might have deliberated under a misguided notion that Zimmerman was some kind of hapless hero, protecting his racially insular community from black interlopers like Martin. This was reflected in Juror B-37’s comment that Zimmerman “wanted to do good. I think he had good in his heart. He just went overboard.” This focus on Zimmerman as a defender of his community overlooked Martin’s innocence and right of self-defense.

If Zimmerman got the ball rolling, at what point did legal responsibility for this tragedy shift from Zimmerman to Martin? The all-white jury’s empathy for Zimmerman resulted in deliberations that were missing an important perspective and voice: those of Trayvon Martin. No fair trial would yield that result.

James E. Coleman Jr. is a professor at Duke Law School. He directs the Duke Law Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility.

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