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An invitation to murder?

Posted: March 22, 2012 10:08 a.m.
Updated: March 23, 2012 5:00 a.m.

I'm glad to hear the Justice Department is looking into the killing of Trayvon Martin. After all, if they can investigate the killing of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, they can do it in Florida.

By now, you've probably heard about the 17-year-old's death and its outrageously suspicious circumstances. It's a story with tragically familiar scenes, especially to those of us who have raised young black males: A young white man follows a "suspicious-looking" black teenager, confronts him, and kills him in "self-defense."

What adds an extra edge and national relevance to this tragic episode is the Florida law under which the shooter claims self-defense. The "Stand Your Ground" law, promoted by the National Rifle Association and signed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush in 2005, allows anyone, anywhere, to use deadly force against another person if they believe their safety or life is in danger. It's the job of the state to prove the act was not justified.

The law's impact was dramatic. The St. Petersburg Times found that five years after the law went into effect, claims of justifiable homicides in Florida more than tripled, from just over 30 to more than 100 in 2010. The Stand-Your-Ground defense was used in 93 cases involving 65 deaths during that period, and in almost every one of them it worked.

Jeb Bush called it a "good, commonsense anti-crime" bill, prosecutors, gun control advocates and other critics called it a "shoot first law" and, more bluntly, a "license to kill and go free."

Born in controversy, the law is living down the low expectations of its critics. Yet more than a dozen other states followed suit. The Trayvon Martin case offers an excellent illustration of why they all should reconsider that move.

Amid the national furor over the racially charged case, a grand jury has been scheduled to hear evidence in April. But from what we know, the shooter, George Zimmerman, makes a poor fit even for the state's notoriously lenient self-defense law.

According to police, Trayvon Martin was walking back from a local convenience store to a house that he and his father were visiting in Sanford, Fla., on February 26. At about the same time, George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old neighborhood watch captain called 911 from his SUV to report the youth looked "real suspicious," according to a 911 call released by police.

What was so "suspicious?" Zimmerman only says Martin is wearing a hooded sweatshirt, "looks like he's up to no good, on drugs or something" and "He's checking me out" and "he's definitely messed up."

And, oh, yes, after the dispatcher asked what race the youth appeared to be, Zimmerman said young Trayvon "looks black." How much did race have to do with Zimmerman's suspicions? That's just one of many questions that cries out for an answer, which is why we have courts.

A bigger problem for Zimmerman's case: When the emergency dispatcher asks, "Are you following him," Zimmerman responds, "Yeah." The dispatcher discourages him with, "OK, we don't need you to do that." But, within minutes, other 911 calls to police report the two are fighting and one was "yelling help." Screams for help can be heard in the background in at least one call, along with the sound of gunfire.

Was Zimmerman's life threatened by a kid whom he greatly outweighed? The only items found in the teen's possession, according to reports, was the bag of Skittles and the AriZona iced tea he picked up at the store. Self-defense? Investigators need to ask, who was defending who against whom?

The Seminole-Brevard State Attorney's Office is proceeding with its investigation and Gov. Rick Scott has asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to join the probe. Better tardy than never. They just needed a little national encouragement.

But this case is bigger than Martin and Zimmerman. The "Stand Your Ground" law itself needs to be investigated, beginning with how much it may cause police and prosecutors to take their foot off the gas pedal on their road to justice.


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