Updated at 4:18 p.m. ET MIAMI – During the 1980s, there was a tourism campaign in Florida that promoted the state by saying: “The rules are different here.”
Fast forward 30 years, and Florida’s legal system is again proving that “rules are different” adage true. Florida was the first state to enact a “stand your ground” law in 2005; since then more than 10 other states have adopted similar laws.
George Zimmerman, 29, charged in the second degree murder of Trayvon Martin, 17, may never go to trial because of Florida's law.
Zimmerman’s defense attorney, Mark O’Mara, announced today he plans to call for a hearing under the “stand your ground” law. This would allow a judge to rule on whether or not Zimmerman has immunity in the shooting death of Martin, if the accused acted within reason, before a trial even gets under way.
O’Mara explained his reasoning on his web site: “A ‘stand your ground’ hearing will essentially be a mini-trial. Most of the arguments, witnesses, experts, and evidence that the defense would muster in a criminal trial will be presented in the ‘stand your ground’ hearing.”
In his first television interview, George Zimmerman offers an apology to Trayvon Martin's family, but says, looking back, he wouldn't have done anything differently. NBC's Gabe Gutierrez reports.
The Martin family’s lawyer, Benjamin Crump, responded to O’Mara’s motion for the hearing with a statement on Thursday: “Let it be clear on the record, that we feel confident that the unjustified killing of Trayvon Benjamin Martin should and will be decided by a jury. Many of the legal architects of the ‘stand your ground’ law have already opined that it does not apply in this case. A grown man cannot profile and pursue an unarmed child, shoot him in the heart, and then claim stand your ground. We believe that the killer’s motion will be denied during the ‘stand your ground’ hearing, and as justice requires a jury will ultimately decide the fate of a man that killed an innocent child.”
'Stand your ground' criteria
In this case, the big question is: Was Zimmerman defending himself when he killed Martin?
To meet the “stand your ground" law requirements in court, a case has to the following four criteria:
1) Whoever initiates the physical confrontation cannot use it as a defense. In other words, you can’t punch someone, they return a blow, and then you take out a gun and shoot.
2) You can’t be in the process of committing a crime and then say you were defending yourself. For example, you can’t hold up a convenience store, and if the clerk pulls a gun on you, shoot the clerk and then claim you were standing your ground.
3) You can “stand your ground” if you are legally allowed to be where you choose to defend yourself. In this case the question will be: Was George Zimmerman legally allowed to stand in the common area between the apartments, taking into account that he exited his vehicle after being told by a Sanford police dispatcher they didn't need his assistance?
4) Finally, are you in fear for your life or serious bodily injury? This is a state of mind question and perhaps the most nebulous because it requires a judge to conclude how someone was thinking at the moment they fired a fatal shot.
Trayvon Martin's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, react to George Zimmerman's first television interview, telling TODAY's Matt Lauer that they wish Trayvon Martin could tell his side of the story.
How will politics play in?
There’s another aspect to a request of immunity when the “stand your ground” law hearing is requested -- a step beyond the courtroom into the world of politics.
In Florida, judges and the state attorneys are elected.
In Seminole County, where the U.S. Census reveals 11.7 percent of the population is African-American, and where thousands have protested over the way this case has been handled, were Judge Kenneth Lester to rule in favor of Zimmerman, a passionate few could organize an effort to end Lester’s career on the bench.
Judges are supposed to rule independent of politics, but legal experts say it’s always easier for a judge “to punt” and just let a jury answer the self-defense question.
An immunity hearing date is not yet set.
When it takes place, you can expect every moment will be broadcast on cable television.
That’s because another rule is also different here.
In Florida, the legal system is open to cameras with the belief that the best government is that which is in “the sunshine.” In other words, every citizen can watch the developments, and in the process, hold those in charge accountable.
NBC News Kerry Sanders has been following the Trayvon Martin story since it began. Follow NBC's Kerry Sanders on Twitter @kerrynbc.
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