Attorneys discuss ‘stand your ground,’ racial justice 10 years after Trayvon Martin’s death

Investigative Reporter Mike DeForest hears from Zimmerman trial lawyers

SANFORD, Fla. – Florida civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump recalls being in court in early 2012 when he received a phone call from a fellow lawyer whose relative had been fatally shot in Sanford days earlier.

Crump was soon put in touch with the dead teen’s father, Tracy Martin.

“He told me about this tragedy of this 17-year-old son, Trayvon Martin, who was walking home with a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea,” Crump told News 6. “And [he told me about] the neighborhood watch volunteer with a nine-millimeter gun who profiled and pursued [the teen] and shot him in his heart.”

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Ten years after Martin’s Feb. 26 death, the attorney who would later represent the teen’s family is still in disbelief that the gunman, George Zimmerman, was not arrested the night of the shooting.

“You can’t kill unarmed teenagers and go home and sleep in your bed at night,” Crump said. “The police said they’re not going to arrest him because of this thing called ‘Stand Your Ground’ law.”

That 2005 Florida law eliminated the duty to retreat before using deadly force if there was a reasonable belief that such force was necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm. The law provided immunity from prosecution if the subject was in a lawful place for a lawful purpose.

Following nationwide protests and the appointment of a special prosecutor, Zimmerman was arrested nearly six weeks after the shooting and charged with second degree murder.

“My frustration is the Zimmerman case has now put ‘Stand Your Ground’ out there and people think, ‘Well, I can just shoot’,” said Mark O’Mara, the criminal defense attorney who successfully defended Zimmerman at trial. “Shooting should still be the absolute last resort for any of us.”

O’Mara did not invoke Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law during the trial. Instead, the attorney argued that Zimmerman shot Martin in self-defense after the teen allegedly attacked the neighborhood watch volunteer first, preventing Zimmerman’s ability to retreat.

“Unfortunately, the publicity that has now wrapped itself around ‘Stand Your Ground,’ I think, has emboldened people,” O’Mara told News 6. “We have more shootings rather than less since Trayvon’s passing.”

‘Stand Your Ground’ laws are associated with an 8-11% increase in homicide rates nationwide, contributing an extra 58-to-72 violent deaths each month, according to a new study published Monday in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Network Open.

“We were hopeful that the ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws would be repealed, because you can see the tragic consequences of this law that encourages people to resort to violence to solve their conflicts,” said Crump.

Instead, ‘Stand Your Ground’ has expanded across the country since Martin’s death, with laws currently enacted in 30 states and under consideration in at least 14 others.

But while Martin’s death did not prompt changes in the nation’s self-defense and gun laws, both attorneys agree it has brought awareness to racial injustice.

“Trayvon was the first case in our time that raised the consciousness level of America to the plight of marginalized people of color,” said Crump, who described the case as “historic.”

“I represent a lot of Black males in the criminal justice system, and I know the biases that exist in the criminal justice system,” O’Mara said. “But it really never got to the front page [before Martin].”

Although O’Mara believes the jury made the right decision to acquit Zimmerman after he says both sides tried their cases well, the defense attorney knows many disagree with the verdict.

“The Black community took [Zimmerman’s acquittal] as a slap in the face that yet another young Black male is killed by yet another white guy, and the white guy gets off,” O’Mara said. “I understand that having a just verdict in the face of having decades of unjust verdicts doesn’t feel all that great to the Black community.”

But in the decade since Martin’s death, O’Mara said he’s become optimistic that there will be a more thorough examination of biases in the criminal justice system.

“Every time you look at a shooting, particularly of a Black kid, now we’re looking at it closely. And that’s good,” O’Mara said. “The system still has a long way to go. I’m just glad that we have put a light on it that I think wasn’t there before Trayvon’s death.”

He and Crump point to recent jury verdicts in the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery as examples of how the national conversation about racial biases is making an impact in courtrooms.

“I think that was part of Trayvon’s legacy, because I think the consciousness level had been raised in America,” said Crump. “It’s a journey to justice. And like all journeys, you can take two steps forward and then you can take a step back. But we just have to make sure we all keep our eyes on the prize.”


About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades. Mike joined News 6 just as Florida officials began counting hanging chads in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election. Since then, he has covered some of the biggest news events in Central Florida.