The George Zimmerman trial has been surrounded by controversy almost from the outset. What began as a routine homicide in Sanford, Florida soon caused a public outcry and has prompted a national discussion about today’s race relations and our criminal justice system.
Late last month, the trial came to a close with a verdict of not guilty. Zimmerman was found not guilty of both second-degree murder and manslaughter, the latter of which is a less serious charge. The verdict has brought the case renewed attention and has provoked calls for an overhaul of controversial “Stand Your Ground” laws.
In Zimmerman’s trial, defense attorneys did not cite the Stand Your Ground law but rather argued self-defense. Nonetheless, the judge instructed the jury that the law should be considered when making their deliberations.
As a criminal defense attorney, I’ve gotten a number of questions about Stand Your Ground, as the law has become known. With so many misconceptions about the law, the vast majority asks me, “What is it, exactly?”
Self-defense laws have long allowed people to defend themselves against their attackers. Our criminal justice system allows “justifiable homicide,” which is the idea that the killing of another person is reasonable if the person who committed the act was defending him/herself or another person from serious injury or death. For most, it seems understandable that the law allows people to protect themselves, even when doing so under other circumstances would be considered a crime.
Killing in self-defense (or in the defense of others) has its limits, however. Typically, the person who uses deadly force must have done so with the reasonable belief of imminent death or serious injury. In addition, the force should generally be “proportionate.” This means that deadly force can be met with deadly force. A simple punch on the nose, however, should not be responded to with lethal force.
Self-defense laws throughout the U.S. vary in their scope. Many states have what’s called the “Castle Doctrine,” which says that people are allowed to stand their ground if they are attacked in their home or car. Under these laws, a person has no duty to flee or avoid conflict. But for those who are attacked outside of their home or car, there is a legal obligation to flee from conflict before using deadly force—the idea being that homicide should be a last resort.
Stand Your Ground laws (also known as No Duty to Retreat or Line in the Sand) like the one in Florida, however, do not require people to retreat before using lethal force as long as they have a legal right to be where they are—whether that is their home or a public park.
So how does self-defense law work in California?
In our state, a homicide is justifiable if the person “really and in good faith…endeavored to decline any further struggle before the homicide was committed,” according to the California Code. However, California does have a version of the Castle Doctrine: “Any person using force intended or likely to cause death or great bodily injury within his or her residence shall be presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily injury to self, family, or a member of the household when that force is used against another person…who unlawfully and forcibly enters…the residence…”