Will Stevie Wonder Boycott Pa. Over Stand Your Ground?

The looming national showdown over the controversial law.

In the wake of the verdict that cleared George Zimmerman of the murder of Trayvon Martin, street protests morphed into a national movement to overturn Stand Your Ground laws that started in Florida and spread to 26 states including Pennsylvania.

That means Stevie Wonder might not play the Wells Fargo Center. The singer announced he is boycotting Florida and says he may boycott other states with a similar law. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg promised to launch a national campaign against what he called “shoot first” laws. U.S. Attorney Eric Holder announced his department would look at overturning the laws. The National Rifle Association fired back that Stand Your Ground laws are “a fundamental human right.”

This debate spills over and into our living rooms thanks to a cable news obsession with the story. Every round table seems to start with an attack on Stand Your Ground based on the George Zimmerman verdict followed by a counter attack that the law had nothing to do with the Zimmerman case. And both sides are wrong.

It is true that the Zimmerman defense team did not claim a Stand Your Ground defense. They claimed self-defense, which is the law of the land. The key difference between the two defense claims in the law is “the obligation to retreat.” With self-defense you have to try and get out of the situation, using lethal force has a last resort. You do not have that obligation under the SYG law. Zimmerman’s story is that he was pinned to the ground by Trayvon Martin making retreat impossible and a Stand Your Ground defense moot.

Attacking the law based on the trial is misguided at best. But it is also disingenuous to claim that the law had nothing to do with the case. Stand Your Ground in Florida changes the judge’s instructions about self-defense to the jury, even when SYG has not been claimed. The Zimmerman jury got these instructions:

If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in anyplace where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

A juror interviewed by Anderson Cooper on CNN confirmed that the law was debated and was on her mind when she made her decision. “Because of the heat of the moment and the Stand Your Ground. He had a right to defend himself. If he felt threatened that his life was going to be taken away from him or he was going to have bodily harm, he had a right.”

But the instructions to the jury and the juror’s comment doesn’t mean the verdict would have been any different is Stand Your Ground didn’t exist. Neither the defense nor the prosecution brought it up. Four weeks of evidence and testimony keyed in on self-defense.

The most relevant effect of the law on the case may be yet to come. Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s defense attorney, has already announced he will seek immunity from a wrongful death civil suit that could be filed by the Martin family. Stand Your Ground allows immunity if a judge finds the defendant’s use of force was justifiable under the law’s standards.

Still, the civil battle to come has little to do with the argument that Stand Your Ground led to the Zimmerman not guilty verdict in the criminal case. The killing of Trayvon Martin and the trial that followed may fuel the national cause with emotion and attention, but it is factually suspect, as is the claim that the law had nothing to do with the case.