By Elisabeth Donovan, 3L
Hoodies stood out as the uniform of the day at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law Stand Your Ground Panel, which was held in a packed room on April 4, in light of the fatal shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida.
“I am a fan of our generation,” 2L Lance Henry, who organized the panel. “However, our generation has a racial issue, and I am making a decision that we are not going to take this issue forward. We can’t make the mark that I think we are going to make if we take these problems with us into the future.”
Most students and professors in the crowd sported hooded sweatshirts to show their support for Martin, who was wearing a “hoodie” the night he was killed by neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman. The attendees sought answers to the questions surrounding the “Stand Your Ground” law, which was why police decided not to arrest Zimmerman.
The Black Law Students Association (BLSA) sponsored the panel, which consisted of TJSL professors Anders Kaye, Maurice Dyson and Marjorie Cohn. The professors explained the laws as they applied to the case and discussed the societal ramifications of the tragedy, also answering questions from students.
“This case raises all kinds of legal issues, emotions and political views,” Professor Cohn said. “If Zimmerman had been black and Trayvon had been white, would there have been an arrest?”
The “Stand Your Ground Law,” Florida Statute 776.013, allows a person to use deadly force if the person reasonably believes it is necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury, without the obligation to retreat. Professor Kaye presented a PowerPoint which highlighted this law, as well as the other relevant Florida defense laws applicable to the case. A person who wishes to assert the “Stand Your Ground” defense must not be engaged in any unlawful activity, and must be attacked in a place where he/she has a right to be. The facts remain unclear as to whether Zimmerman or Martin was the aggressor in the deadly altercation.
“We have to worry that Zimmerman was interpreting what was happening through a distorting lens,” Professor Kaye said. “If he is under the influence of racial bias it might make it more likely that he is the first aggressor. If he is drawing on stereotypes as he goes through experience, this may undercut the reasonableness of his beliefs about Martin.”
Professor Kaye focused his attention on another Florida statute 776.032, which has ultimately served as the reason Zimmerman was not arrested. The law states that if a person is justified in using force that is permitted by law, then that person is immune from criminal prosecution. It also states that police may not arrest a person unless there is probable cause that the force he/she used was unlawful.
This determination of probable cause remains solely in the hands of police officers, and the police in the Trayvon Martin case have said that so far there is no evidence to contradict Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense, which is why he has not been charged with any crimes.
"The immunity provisions of the Florida defense statutes is a dangerous development in the law that deserves greater scrutiny and corrective legislative action if it continues to authorize police to extend immunity on the scene to those it deems deserving of it,” Professor Dyson said. “It is in the interest of all that more transparency and accountability become an essential component in this law."
“A bright light was shined on the social issues of the Trayvon Martin case,” Henry said. “While we can’t ignore the social issues, as lawyers and future lawyers, we owe it to ourselves and the community to examine the actual legal doctrine that governs this case and focus the conversation in reason."
During the day on April 4, students, faculty and staff members were wearing hoodies on campus in a show of solidarity, including Dean Rudy Hasl, who wore a hoodie to the event.