There are thousands of articles written each day about the Trayvon Martin case. Most of these pertain to Florida’s self-defense law. The general consensus among criminal defense lawyers is that the evidence supported a self-defense instruction and that the jury’s application of the law was fair. At least this is how I read these articles and blog posts. While many people are criticizing the Florida “stand your ground” law I saw a post from a Rhode Island criminal lawyer suggesting that in that state Mr. Zimmerman likely would have been acquitted. I will not opine on what would have happened in Massachusetts had the case been tried here. However I thought this would be a good opportunity to discuss the Massachusetts self-defense law from the perspective of a Massachusetts Criminal Defense Lawyer.
Self-defense is permitted is Massachusetts. The defendant does not have to prove that he acted in self-defense. Rather, the district attorney must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused did not act in self-defense. The application of this law depends on whether the defendant used deadly force or non-deadly force. Since we are discussing the law in the context of the Trayvon Martin case let’s look at the use of deadly force. For that defense to work the accused must “reasonable and actually believe” that he was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm. He must also do everything he can to avoid combat before he uses such force. Finally, one can only use as much force as is necessary under the circumstances.
So here is what I think the jury may have focused on had this case been tried in Massachusetts. 1) Were Trayvon Martin’s actions enough to permit a person in George Zimmerman’s position to reasonably believe that Zimmerman was in immediate danger of death or great bodily harm? 2) Was George Zimmerman able to escape safely without using deadly force? Could he have walked away? Could he have held Trayvon Martin at bay? Could he have called for help without exposing himself to further danger? 3) Did George Zimmerman use more force than was necessary under the circumstances? Factors to consider here are the size differences between the parties, the location of the event, the presence of weapons and who had what weapon.
Here are some other factors that may come into play in Massachusetts self-defense cases. The victim’s prior acts or crimes of violence may be admissible if there exists a dispute as to who was the first aggressor. There is no need for the defendant to know about the victim’s reputation for violence to avail oneself of this defense. That knowledge, if present however can be used as evidence at trial.
Even though Massachusetts does not characterize its self-defense law as a “stand your ground” law its application in the circumstances of particular cases might not differ much or even at all. From what I know about the Trayvon Martin case George Zimmerman would have secured a self-defense instruction in Massachusetts. The jury’s decision would have been driven by facts identical to those adduced in Florida at the very least. There is no reason to believe that the verdict here would have been different from the verdict in Florida. That being said, each jury is unique. It is impossible to predict a verdict. As I tell my clients, anything can happen at trial.