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George Zimmerman’s Defense

ABC News has obtained a copy of a doctor’s report on a visit by George Zimmerman the day after the Trayvon Martin shooting. The report discloses that Zimmerman had a broken nose, two black eyes, two cuts on the back of his head, bruising on the upper lip and cheek and lower back pain. This revelation obviously bolsters Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense and sheds light on why local authorities initially declined to charge him. The injuries described in the doctor’s report appear to corroborate strongly the version of events that Zimmerman gave to police officers.

I wrote here that, “based, at least, on the information that is now public,” Zimmerman should have been charged with manslaughter. I also noted that it couldn’t be the case that there is literally no evidence other than Zimmerman’s account:

The reality is that there is always evidence other than the testimony of the survivor. There is considerable physical evidence, and here, both of the protagonists were on the telephone until moments before their final confrontation. Some of that conversation was recorded. In addition, there may well be eyewitness testimony.

We now know about some, but not all, of that evidence, and the medical records may well explain the original prosecutor’s acceptance of Zimmerman’s plea of self-defense.

ABC comments on the implications of Zimmerman’s injuries:

The medical notes may bolster Zimmerman’s claim that he acted in self-defense because he was being attacked. However, the prosecution contends that Zimmerman instigated the confrontation after profiling the teen, who was walking home after buying skittles and ice tea. They prosecution says Martin was breaking no laws and was not disturbing anyone as he walked back to his father’s girlfriend’s home.

Zimmerman is entitled to “profile” anyone he wants, but he is not entitled to start a fight with Martin or anyone else. What I take to be ABC’s implicit assumption about the law is not correct. In fact, as I noted here, Florida’s statutes contain a very specific provision that governs the situation where a person initiates an altercation, but then gets the worst of it and fears death or great bodily harm:

776.041 Use of force by aggressor. —The justification described in the preceding sections of this chapter is not available to a person who:

(1) Is attempting to commit, committing, or escaping after the commission of, a forcible felony; or

(2) Initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself, unless:

(a) Such force is so great that the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant; or

(b) In good faith, the person withdraws from physical contact with the assailant and indicates clearly to the assailant that he or she desires to withdraw and terminate the use of force, but the assailant continues or resumes the use of force.

It is not clear whether there is any evidence that Zimmerman in fact initiated the confrontation; maybe there is an as-yet-unknown eyewitness. But let’s assume that he did. In that case, he would still be entitled to use deadly force if he reasonably believed that he was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm, and he had done all he reasonably could to escape, or had “withdrawn from physical contact” with Martin and clearly indicated that he wanted to terminate the confrontation. Given the injuries described by Zimmerman’s doctor, it is plausible to conclude that Zimmerman’s belief that he was in danger of death or great bodily harm was reasonable. Further, given that the evidence of his injuries corroborates Zimmerman’s account that Martin had him on the ground and was pummeling his face and banging his head into the pavement, it also seems reasonable to conclude that Zimmerman had no reasonable means of escape other than to respond with deadly force of his own.

So Zimmerman appears to have a strong claim of self-defense–based, once again, on the limited evidence in the public domain–even if he initially provoked the confrontation with Martin. That’s how I read the statute anyway.

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