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Monday, July 15, 2013

Reaction to the Zimmerman Verdict

I have seen dozens of reactions to the Zimmerman verdict this weekend that express reactions across the joy-rage spectrum.  Some folks get the law right, many of them don't, and there are many ships passing each other in the night as far as arguments are concerned.  Starting tomorrow, I expect to see the first salvo of critiques of this weekend's criticism.

In the volumes of coverage, I have found a few reactions that I think are worth reading.  PrawfsBlawg's Dan Markel posts about some of the tangled legal analysis of other reactions so far and directs reform-oriented critics to focus more attention on whether the state or defendant bears the burden of proof.  Eugene Volokh confirms that Florida is not an outlier in this area of law, with 49 out of 50 states requiring the government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense as long as the defendant puts forth some evidence of self-defense.

As far as Florida's "stand your ground" law goes, Markel notes in his earlier post that the Zimmerman case and the facts that ultimately were most important do not make this case a good example of that law in operation.  Despite this, the case has at least gotten people talking about the law.  Here is of the more interesting posts I've seen on the subject that explains the controversy in far more detail and depth than I could hope to contribute at this point.  While I agree with Markel in that I don't think that the Zimmerman case is a particularly accurate instance of this law in action, that law is still an important issue and the fact that it does not apply 100 percent to the Zimmerman case should not distract from the very real arguments that can be made for and against stand your ground laws.

As far as my own reaction to the case, I've spent most of this past year studying self-defense and I can say with confidence that it is very difficult to have an accurate, knee-jerk reaction to this area of law.  Self-defense law involves competing considerations on the social, political, and philosophical levels, with different debates to be had in each area.  These different levels of debate lead to different conclusions.  One might find that, depending on the premises one proceeds from, one's philosophical considerations support one type of self-defense law, but social/political considerations support an entirely different one.  When it comes to arguing about whether self-defense law should fit into, say, what free will considerations demand versus what critical race considerations demand, the debate can get dangerously muddled.

I will admit that was a pretty vague paragraph.  If you're interested in the details of what I think about self-defense law and you have a lot of time on your hands, feel free to read this draft of a paper I am writing, where I lay out some arguments of my own on the subject.

With the complexities of the law and legal issues in mind, and the varied accounts that I have heard about the evidence involved in the Zimmerman case, I am going to remain agnostic on the verdict.  I do think that the case can serve as an illustration of some important issues of self-defense law as well as the role of race in the criminal justice system in general.

I am not going to say that "we need to have a discussion."  That sort of conclusion signals nothing more than punting on the issues. Moreover, if you read my paper, you'll see that the discussion has already been underway for some time.  I mainly look forward to seeing who gets involved now, and how much of an impact this discussion ends up having now that so many people are paying attention.

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