MIAMI--Florida's controversial 2005 "Stand-Your-Ground" self-defense law could make it difficult to charge a Sanford man who shot an unarmed Miami Gardens teenager to death, legal experts say.
An arrest could hinge on whether prosecutors believe that neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman acted unreasonably when he encountered Trayvon Martin, 17, whom he suspected was a prowler. A 911 dispatcher told Zimmerman that he didn't need to follow Martin.
"If he was attacked, he can stand his ground," said retired Miami-Dade prosecutor David Waksman, who is not involved in the case. "But if police say back off and we'll take care of it, he's not covered by the law."
The state self-defense law eliminated a citizen's duty to retreat before using deadly force to confront an attacker. Police and prosecutors statewide have said the the law fosters a shoot-first, ask-questions-later mentality.
The law includes a provision that grants "immunity" from prosecution or civil lawsuits if a person is deemed to have acted in self-defense, though lawmakers did not clearly specify exactly who bestows the immunity.
After a series of court battles across the state, the Florida Supreme Court in December 2010 ruled that judges should be the ones to consider evidence under a looser standard than the familiar "beyond a reasonable doubt" one used before juries in criminal cases.
Since then, South Florida judges have dismissed charges in several murder cases in which defendants sought immunity based on the law.
Last month, however, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch denied the immunity claim of a Florida International University student who stabbed an unarmed football player to death during a brawl.
The law "does not justify the use of deadly force in response to threats or shows of force of any and ever kind. In ordinary circumstances a push or a slap may be met with a push or a slap, or perhaps a punch -- but not with a bullet," Hirsch said.
Zimmerman, 28, shot Martin on Feb. 26 at the Retreat at Twin Lakes community in Sanford. He has not been charged.
The case has sparked racial tensions, because Martin was black and Zimmernan is not. Martin's family has insisted Zimmerman was racially profiling the teen, who was visiting friends of relatives and that night had walked to the store to buy candy.
While prosecutors decide whether charges are warranted, attorneys say Sanford's police chief has been unusually forceful in declaring that Zimmerman appeared to be acting in self-defense when he killed Martin in a public walkway at a housing community.
Not all the facts in Zimmerman's case have been released to the public. But according to 911 calls released last week, Zimmerman told dispatchers that said the person now identified as Martin looked drugged and was walking slowly, as if looking inside people's homes.
"These a--holes always get away," said Zimmerman, who has called 911 scores of times to complain of potential criminals.
Zimmerman, who was in his truck, told the dispatcher that the suspicious person had his hand in his waist band -- suggesting that he thought the teen was armed. "Something's wrong with him. He's coming to check me out," Zimmerman said.
As Zimmerman narrated, the dispatcher asked: "Are you following him?"
"Yeah," Zimmerman replied.
"We don't need you to do that," the dispatcher said.
An interpretation of that exchange could be important in deciding whether Zimmerman acted recklessly in pursuing Martin. Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee, in an interview last week, suggested that Zimmerman did not.
"That's another question we get quite often: 'He was told not to follow him."' Lee said in an interview last week. "Well that's a recommendation or a suggestion. It's not a lawful order."
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