June 19, 2013, Newark, NJ- The jury trial for George Zimmerman, who is charged with the shooting death of a Florida teen Trayvon Martin, begins this week. This multi-faceted case involves a number of controversial issues such as racial profiling and gun violence, which will have some bearing on the final outcome of the case, but the central issue George Zimmerman’s defense team will be proving is that their client believed his life was in danger and acted in self-defense when he used deadly force against Trayvon Martin.
Self-defense laws in the U.S. were enacted so that citizens can protect themselves, their family, and their property from assailants without fear that even though their actions were justified they could face criminal prosecution for harming an assailant. However, self-defense cases are not straight forward, as George Zimmerman’s case demonstrates. In some instances people, who are acting out of self-defense, use more force than necessary, and others are wrongfully charged with a crime when they were simply asserting their right to protect themselves.
The fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin last February thrust the state of Florida’s “stand your ground” law into the national spotlight and highlighted the stark differences between traditional self-defense laws and “stand your ground” laws.
With “stand your ground” statutes, a person, acting out of self-defense, does not have the legal obligation to retreat or give ground to an assailant when their lives are in danger or their property has been invaded. This law affords a person, who used deadly force while protecting their home or vehicle, immunity from criminal prosecution so long as they had the reasonable fear that their lives were in imminent danger of great bodily harm or death.
All states, including New Jersey, have self-defense laws, but these laws are much more limited in their scope than “stand your ground” laws. They are typically asserted as an affirmative defense in a criminal trial whereas the “stand your ground” law provides prosecutorial immunity for an individual, who harmed or killed an assailant while in the commission of a crime.
“Stand your ground” laws favor those who are protecting themselves or their property. This law eliminates a threatened individual’s “duty to retreat” or flee the assailant, and also eliminates the requirement that a defendant show they made an effort to retreat an assailant before using excessive force.
In contrast, New Jersey’s self-defense law requires that an individual make an attempt to retreat of flee from an assailant before using force; this is called the “duty to retreat.” When a defendant uses self-defense to avoid prosecution, their attorney must prove that they made an effort to get away, or retreat, from the threat before using excessive or deadly force.
Also, under New Jersey’s self-defense law, the defendant must prove they had to act immediately to protect their life and that the force they used was necessary. The state’s self-defense law also dictates that the person being threatened must prove that the amount of force used was necessary.
Even when states have strong self-defense laws, some individuals have been wrongfully prosecuted for assault or homicide. An example would be the case of a Georgia man, John McNeill.
In 2005, McNeil arrived to his home only to find that his son Brian Sears was being attacked by a man with a knife, the attacker was later identified as Brian Epp. When McNeil rushed to his son’s aide, Epp, who was still wielding a knife, charged toward him. McNeil fired a warning shot into the ground but Epp kept coming toward him. That is when McNeil fired another round stopping Epp’s assault with a single shot to the head.
McNeil was able to produce a witness who corroborated his story, but despite that he was charged and convicted with Epp’s murder. McNeil’s case is an example of how a person can be wrongfully charged with a serious felony even in a state with more lenient self-defense laws.
I, Eric Mark Esq., have dedicated my practice to defending the legal rights of all my clients, regardless of the severity of the charges, and will diligently investigate the individual circumstances of your case so that I can provide you with a solid and highly-effective defense. No criminal charge is out the scope of my expertise and I won’t rest until I been able help you avoid a conviction and preserve your individual freedom.