By now, we all know the situation: an armed neighborhood watch volunteer, a young black man, a physical confrontation, a fatal shooting. Arrest, trial, verdict, and, depending on your point of view, outrage or vindication.
Among the numerous and overlapping questions raised by the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida last year and the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman — about race and profiling, about crime, about weapons and public safety — observers say Maryland’s more restrictive regulations on handgun permits likely would keep such an incident from occurring in the Free State.
But if Zimmerman had been tried in a Maryland courtroom, there’s a “substantial likelihood” that he would probably not be a free man now, said Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy (D).
Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which says a person can justifiably use deadly force in self-defense, is “virtually a license to kill,” McCarthy said. It encourages people to take the law into their own hands and undervalues human life, he said.
Maryland law, on the other hand, says there’s a duty to retreat, meaning that if victims can safely get away from their attackers before standing their ground, they must, McCarthy said. No such duty exists under a stand-your-ground law.
Under the “castle doctrine,” a principle that applies in Maryland law, deadly force can be used to defend one’s home or business, where there is no duty to retreat.
If the victim were in a public place and could walk away from an alleged attacker, or stay in a car and avoid confrontation, making a self-defense argument would be problematic in Maryland, McCarthy said.
But Frederick County State’s Attorney Charlie Smith (R) said that in practice, stand-your-ground laws aren’t that different from duty-to-retreat laws, which he said contain necessary exceptions.
If an older man is attacked by a much younger man, from whom he cannot safely retreat, then the older man is allowed to stand his ground, Smith said. Likewise, you can stand your ground if you retreat and someone continues to pursue you, he said.
Smith said Maryland has “a great law on the books.”
Zimmerman likely would have had a duty to retreat from Martin in Maryland, but the outcome of the court case probably would have been the same, Smith said.
“[Prosecutors] take an oath that we will not initiate prosecution unless we believe we can prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, the facts,” Smith said. The fact that Florida prosecutors initially declined to charge Zimmerman indicates they knew they couldn’t prove the case, he said.
“Unfortunately, I think politics came into play,” Smith said.
Lawmakers who have expressed interest in being attorney general were quick to point out how unlikely a similar incident would be in Maryland, particularly since a neighborhood watch volunteer like Zimmerman probably wouldn’t be able to carry a handgun in Maryland.
“You must have a good and substantial reason” for carrying a gun in order to get a permit, said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Chevy Chase. Someone who handles a lot of cash, such as an armored car driver, might qualify for such a permit, but neighborhood watch duties wouldn’t cut it, he said.
Frosh has said he is running for attorney general in 2014, as have Del. C. William Frick (D-Dist. 16) of Bethesda, Del. Aisha Braveboy (D-Dist. 25) of Mitchellville and Del. Jon S. Cardin (D-Dist. 11) of Owings Mills. No one has filed for the race.
Stand-your-ground laws have been proposed in Maryland before, but have been rejected by lawmakers, Frosh said.
The state’s current laws “really decrease the possibility of armed vigilantes getting guns” in the first place, Frick said.
The criteria for claiming self-defense in a homicide case are good, particularly because a person cannot argue self-defense if he or she is the aggressor or instigator, Braveboy said. By getting out of his car to pursue Martin even after he’d called 911, Zimmerman provoked the confrontation, she said.
“That’s maybe where Florida [law] needs to provide greater clarity,” Braveboy said.
While the case may not be a call for changes in Maryland gun or self-defense law, candidates said the incident shows there are still lessons to be learned.
“We have a long way to go to deal with the racial issues in our country,” Cardin said. “Maryland is no exception.”