With the Florida State Attorney’s Office charging George Zimmerman with second-degree murder for the shooting of Trayvon Martin, Breitbart.com has assembled a quick guide to Florida homicide law and self defense for our readers. We’ve taken some complicated legal terms and explained them and tried to break them down so they make sense to non-lawyers.
Here’s what you–and the jurors on the Martin case will need to know to understand arguments being made under Florida homicide law.
Murder Under Florida Statute:
In Florida, the second-degree homicide statute 782.04 is defined as: the unlawful killing of a human being, when perpetrated by any act imminently dangerous to another and evincing a depraved mind regardless of human life, although without any premeditated design to effect the death of any particular individual, is murder in the second degree and constitutes a felony of the first degree, punishable by imprisonment for a term of years not exceeding life.
When prosecutors explain this to jurors, however, they will have to do so by breaking the law down into what lawyers call elements. A prosecutor must prove every single element of the charge beyond a reasonable doubt. An element is like an ingredient in a recipe. You don’t have a chocolate chip cookie if you don’t have all the ingredients. You may have the sugar and the cookie dough, but without the chocolate chips, you don’t have a chocolate chip cookie.
With murder, the prosecution must prove all of the elements of murder; otherwise they have a killing, but they do not have murder. That means even if they have some elements, but not all–they still don’t have a murder conviction. Here’s how it all breaks down.
Common Law Murder:
Under British Common Law—that’s the basic, original framework before it is revised—murder is defined as (1) the unlawful killing (2) of a human being (3) with malice. Malice is defined as committing an act (a) purposely, (b) knowingly or (c) recklessly.
First Degree Murder:
When one commits a murder purposely, it is considered first-degree, which, in Florida, is punishable by death. First-degree murder is most commonly referred to as “premeditated murder.” How long does one have to premeditate a murder for it to be considered first-degree? It could be a split second. If someone were to point a gun at someone and aim it at their heart instead of just shooting quickly, they’re in the premeditation zone.
Second Degree Murder:
When one commits a killing knowingly—meaning that they are acting with a conscious awareness that they are doing something that could end another’s life, then they are committing second degree murder.
When one commits a killing recklessly, they are acting with a conscious disregard for another person’s life—or they are acting in a way that could cause a substantial and unjustifiable risk to that person. In Florida, when one commits a killing knowingly or recklessly, he or she can also be charged with second-degree murder, which carries up to life in prison.
Manslaughter in Florida:
Lesser degrees of killings actually include third-degree murder (a special category in Florida, which is rare in other jurisdictions) and manslaughter.
Under British Common Law, Voluntary manslaughter typically involves someone committing an intentional killing, but the charge is reduced from murder to manslaughter because a person has an excuse such as acting in the heat of passion. Acting in the heat of passion usually requires acting within moments of experiencing a shocking event without having time to cool or calm down. Involuntary manslaughter usually involves an unlawful killing committed with negligence.
In Florida, manslaughter can be committed in three different ways: (1) Manslaughter by Act, which is committing an act that was neither excusable nor justified and ultimately resulted in the death of another person, (2) Manslaughter by Procurement, which involves persuading, inducing, or encouraging another person to commit an act that ends up resulting in the death of another person, and (3) Manslaughter by Culpable Negligence, which involves engaging in “culpably negligent” conduct that leads to the death of another person. In Florida, a manslaughter conviction can carry up to 15 years in prison.
The Burden of Proof:
In Florida, only a grand jury—that’s a special panel of citizens convened by the prosecution to decide if charges are appropriate—can enable a prosecutor to file for first degree murder, and it’s much harder to prove at trial than second-degree. So, often times prosecutors will only charge a defendant with second-degree murder even if they think their actions fall under a first-degree murder theory.
That means the prosecutor’s theory of the case may or may not involve George Zimmerman premeditating Martin’s death—or it may merely mean that they think he acted recklessly.
We’ll find out when prosecutors make their opening statement on the first day of trial and we finally get to hear their theory of the case.
Second degree murder isn’t as hard to prove as first degree, but prosecutors still carry what’s called the “burden of proof,” and in criminal law it’s a very high threshold. The state must prove second degree murder beyond any reasonable doubt. A reasonable doubt must be a doubt that comes from the evidence at trial; it cannot be an “imaginary doubt” or a doubt based on conjecture.
Justifiable and Excusable Homicide in Florida as an Affirmative Defense:
In the state of Florida, under Statute 782.02, a person can justifiably use deadly force “when a person is resisting any attempt to murder such person or to commit any felony upon him or upon or in any dwelling house in which such person shall be.” That means a person can legally kill another person if they are defending themselves from another’s attempt to murder them. If they are in their own home, then they have extra protection and can use deadly force to prevent an intruder from committing any felony upon them. This extra protection in one’s home is known as the Castle Doctrine under Florida Statute 776.013.
Under 776.013, a person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in a place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat. According to Florida law, that person “has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”
When a defendant uses self defense as a defense it is called an affirmative defense. That means the defendant is admitting they committed the act, but they are asserting that, because of unusual circumstances beyond their control, they are innocent of committing a crime.
In this case, the burden of proof is still on the prosecution, but the burden of production (which side must produce evidence) shifts to the defense, and the defense must prove by a preponderance (more likely than not, or by 51% likelihood) that they were in fact acting in self defense as described above.
Sound complicated? The jurors in each murder case must be able to understand all of this law to make a fair decision for the defendant and the interests of the victim and the state.
The Trayvon Martin Case and Florida Law:
The Florida State Attorney’s Office has charged George Zimmerman with second-degree murder. Therefore, the prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman knowingly or recklessly killed Martin, and they can only prevail if Zimmerman does not successfully assert one of many defenses, the most likely being justifiable or excusable homicide. If, in fact, the prosecutors cannot prove second-degree murder, Florida law allows prosecutors to ask jurors to convict a defendant of a lesser degree killing such as third-degree murder or manslaughter. Either way, prosecutors will have to prove the elements of every offense beyond a reasonable doubt.