CSRRR panel dissects ‘stand your ground’ law, other legal aspects in Trayvon Martin case

Published: April 9th, 2012

Category: News

CSRR holds a panel lecture on Trayvon Martin

Students, faculty and other members of the UF Law community gathered March 28 to hear the CSRRR panel, which discussed the legal aspects of the Trayvon Martin case. (Photo by Maggie Powers)

It would be three weeks after Trayvon Martin’s body lay on the sidewalk before Michelle Jacobs heard the Sanford, Fla., boy’s name.

“The media wasn’t interested in Trayvon Martin,” Jacobs told a packed crowd March 28 at the UF Law Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations panel that discussed the case that has stoked a national debate and left many with troubled hearts and unanswered questions. “Trayvon Martin wasn’t newsworthy.”

And that’s because Martin’s story is one that’s been told before.

Martin was fatally shot in the Orlando suburb by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman, while walking home from a convenience store Feb. 26. Martin was unarmed, but Zimmerman shot Martin in what he said was an act of self-defense.

Jacobs had only heard of Martin after discussing “the talk” with fellow professor Monique Haughton-Worrell that black mothers are forced to have with their sons about subserviently obeying police officers when — not if — they’re confronted by law enforcement.

By the time Jacobs had that conversation with Haughton-Worrell, the 17-year-old had nearly been forgotten after three weeks.

Now, after almost 2.3 million online petition signatures, a social media stampede calling for “Justice for Trayvon” and a delayed media whirlwind, Martin has become the latest poster boy for the searing racial tensions in America.

The two-and-a-half-hour CSRRR event, “A Conversation on the Shooting Death of Trayvon Martin,” featured a panel of four black law professors, two white law professors and an audience that tried to understand the messy legal web with Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” statute at its epicenter.

Going so far as to call it a “bad law,” Michael Seigel, criminal law professor and director of the Criminal Justice Center and the criminal clinics, said the stand your ground statute — the self-defense law Zimmerman invoked in the death of Martin — has a host of internal issues that need to be revised.

“(Stand your ground) has put a chill factor on prosecutors to do their job,” Seigel said.

Many panelists agreed, including Haughton-Worrell, who went so far as to say Zimmerman would not be sent to prison in Martin’s death.

The law’s record seems to echo Seigel.

According to a Tampa Bay Times March analysis, defendants have invoked the stand your ground statute at least 130 times since the law’s 2005 birth. Of those cases, 28 have been brought to trial, and 19 of those instances resulted in a guilty verdict.

But beyond the stand your ground statute, the Martin case has created a media firestorm and nationwide outpourings of grief because of its racial undertones.

“One reason this case has got so much attention is because it’s racialized from top to bottom,” panelist and law professor Kenneth Nunn added.

Jacobs added to the discussion of the “racialization of Trayvon Martin” by suggesting the case was impacted by racism before it even began.

In order for self-defense to become a legitimate rallying cry, Nunn said, a victim must feel it is a “reasonable” occasion to use force.

According to Jacobs, the ever-present social perceptions of black Americans have created a “reasonable” suspicion of violence that will, according to her, allow Zimmerman to use this defense in his case.

“If you turn on the TV just once, you are infected by American racism,” Jacobs added. “The normative racist values that drive the American justice system — that’s what the Trayvon Martin case is all about.”

The panel also featured Katheryn Russell-Brown, director of the CSRRR, and law professor George Dekle.