How has the George Zimmerman trial changed the way we see the right to self defense?

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Answered by: Cory, An Expert in the Your Rights Category
The Zimmerman Verdict and the Right to Self Defense in America

It has been almost two weeks now since George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder in the death of a young man named Trayvon Martin. But the controversial distinction of whether Martin--who was unarmed at the time Zimmerman shot him-- was killed in self defense, or if Zimmerman profiled and shot Martin in a heinous act of racism and bigotry, remains a matter of intense debate throughout the country. The Zimmerman trial,because of the publicity and exposure it received from media, has exposed yet another deep rift between Americans in terms of how we view the right to self defense, civil responsibility, and race in our country. Even before the trial, when the news of Martin's death first began making waves in national headlines, many people immediately took sides based on the scant information found in police reports and early news articles.

Now, two weeks after a Florida jury found Zimmerman innocent of murder, most of those people remain on the same side they were on before the trial even took place. Those defending Zimmerman say that he was defending himself, that he had a right to self defense because Martin attacked him and threatened is life. Others, who accuse Zimmerman of murdering Martin in cold blood, say that Zimmerman should have never left his car to pursue Martin, that Martin wouldn't have felt threatened enough to fight in the first place if Zimmerman had listened to police, who told him to remain in his vehicle after reporting Martin for suspicious activity, and some even argue that Martin's being unarmed should be enough in itself to condemn Zimmerman in the first place.

Many have also made claims that the race is a highly relevant factor in the case. Zimmerman's defenders claim that he has been demonized by minorities and that they want to condemn Zimmerman simply because Martin was black. Contrarily, his accusers claim that Zimmerman's profiling of Martin as suspicious and his subsequent use of lethal force to restrain the unarmed Martin were racially motivated. Some wonder if the trial would have come out differently if the victim had been Hispanic and the shooter black.

But to reduce the case to a matter of race is, for one, a complete matter of prejudiced assumption. There's simply no way to know either Zimmerman's or Martin's racial prejudices and attitudes. Furthermore, appealing to race carries obvious political undertones and reinforces the conservative/liberal; republican/democrat; black/white polarization of American on just about every possible issue. Arguing the Zimmerman trial became just another excuse for causing division and derision among Americans. And, because so many people got caught up in the politics of race, the issues of civil responsibility and the right to self defense--the real issues at hand in the Zimmerman trial--took a back seat to the same cliched, bitter bickering and shouting over one another.

Perhaps Americans can only think in dichotomies, and if so, perhaps it is time to stop trying to play the race card and examine another dichotomy. Where DO we draw the line between civil responsibility and self defense? Zimmerman claimed that he followed Martin because he looked suspicious. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain, also claims that there had been recent break-ins in the area, and that he was trying to prevent crime and protect the neighborhood. So how does that translate to shooting and unarmed teenager? Ultimately, Zimmerman claims to have been performing a civic duty, protecting his friends and neighbors. He says that Martin attacked him, and that he shot Martin because he feared for his life.

But then there's also the fact that Zimmerman called the police when he became suspicious of Martin, and that the police told Zimmerman to stay in his car. But Zimmerman did not stay in his car. He got out, and, one way or another, a physical confrontation and altercation occurred, resulting in Martin's death by gunshot. If Zimmerman had done what the police told him to and stayed in his car, would the confrontation ever have happened? Does he even have the right to self defense if he knowingly puts himself in danger--not to save someone's life or protect anyone's property--but to confront a person of who he is suspicious? Is there a such thing as a fair trial in cases such as these that receive a ridiculous amount of national attention?

It would seem that these are the questions that Americans should be asking but would rather avoid because, apparently, starting a race war over uninformed legal opinions is far easier than having a serious and civil discussion about the legal arguments regarding self defense and civil responsibility. The Zimmerman verdict spawned a flood of polarized legal arguments among armchair attorneys everywhere, especially on social networking sites and internet forums. People shouted, cursed, roared applause, and gave their expert opinions on everything from how the trial was a travesty of justice to how it was a great day for America. Families were ruined, jurors went on TV and said they regretted their decision, and white people throughout the country once again felt vindicated.

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