On Tuesday, in a move that befuddled some legal experts, the defense attorney representing George Zimmerman in the high-profile Trayvon Martin case canceled the ‘Stand Your Ground’ hearing scheduled for April 20.
Under Florida’s SYG statute, an individual who invokes the controversial self-defense law that allows one to use deadly force against an attacker if one reasonably believes his or her life is in danger is entitled to an immunity hearing before a judge.
At the SYG hearing, a judge can drop the criminal charges and grant immunity from civil prosecution if the defense attorney provides clear and convincing evidence that the his or her client acted in self-defense.
In the case of Zimmerman, who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in a gated community in Sanford, Florida, over a year ago, after the two got into a fight, it would seem that by conventional wisdom his legal team would want to take advantage of the immunity hearing.
776.012 Use of force in defense of person.— [Florida’s SYG Law]
A person is justified in using force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force. However, a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if:
(1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony; or
(2) Under those circumstances permitted pursuant to s. 776.013.
Why not, right? What’s the worse that can happen? The judge doesn’t grant immunity and they go to trial.
Well, by cancelling the hearing, now they have to go to trial where Zimmerman is facing second-degree murder charges, which carry a minimum sentence of 25 years behind bars. So, it would appear that they gave up on an opportunity to get Zimmerman off early and save him a bunch of money in legal fees (a lengthy trial is not cheap).
Some legal minds speculated on why Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s attorney, made the call to cancel the SYG hearing.
University of Florida law professor Bob Dekle said that O’Mara doesn’t want to show his hand to prosecutors during a bench mini-trial.
“If you’re not 100 percent sure you’re going to win the ‘Stand Your Ground’ hearing, you just end up telling the state what your defense is and you’ve got nothing with which to surprise the state at trial,” Dekle told the Christian Science Monitor. “What you want to do at trial is catch the state with their britches down.”
There’s also the issue of timing, which plays a factor. Currently, O’Mara’s team is digging into a key witness for the prosecution, a woman who was on the phone with Martin just before Zimmerman confronted him.
Apparently, she lied about her age; she initially said she was 16, but it turns out that she is really 18. She also lied about why she missed Martin’s funeral, she claimed she was at a hospital, but that turned out to be a lie as well. Clearly, this information damages her credibility and the prosecution’s case. O’Mara might be looking to find out more about this witness before the case goes to trial, hence the need for more time.
Lastly, there is O’Mara’s explanation as to why he canceled the hearing, which also makes sense, considering it is straight from the horse’s mouth.
“We decided to focus on the idea that George wants to have a jury of his peers decide his case,” O’Mara told reporters, according to the Associated Press. “And it’s going to be, I think, a more accepted result for everyone who has to accept the result — that he gets an acquittal at trial, more so than an immunity hearing given by a judge.”
In other words, Zimmerman’s thinking that he’ll get some peace of mind and have an easier time readjusting to a ‘normal’ life if he is judged by 12 as opposed to being granted immunity by one. Arguably, people in his community wouldn’t be able to hold that over his head, i.e. “You only got off because of a corrupt judge, etc.” While, there’s probably some truth to that line of reasoning, it’s still giving up what is in many cases a golden opportunity.
Given that, what would you decide? Would you take advantage of the ‘stand your ground’ hearing? Or would you rather be judge by a jury of your peers?
[Also, and for clarification, O’Mara will still argue that Zimmerman acted in self-defense during the trail. Whether he explicitly invokes SYG or simple self-defense under Florida’s previous laws – Zimmerman was allegedly on the ground getting his head beaten in when he shot Martin – is unclear.]