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Thursday, Aug 28, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Zimmerman verdict raises more questions than answers

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Saturday's acquittal of George Zimmerman, America's most notorious neighborhood watchman, assigned an exclamation point - open to interpretation - to the opening chapter of the Trayvon Martin saga. Meanwhile, question marks lined up like dominoes stretch to the horizon, waiting for an unseen index finger to trigger the cascade.

What, for instance, are we supposed to tell other neighborhood watch organizations? Should members who have concealed-carry permits voluntarily disarm themselves? Shouldn't law enforcement take this moment to reiterate the pure surveillance nature of neighborhood watch organizations, and to stress the virtue of a powerful flashlight and a reliable video camera over a small-bore semiautomatic?

Here in Pasco, should Sheriff Chris Nocco disband neighborhood watch organizations if any of their members disregard the recommendations of 9-1-1 dispatchers?

Has Zimmerman's ordeal - 15 months over the coals of an improbable prosecution fanned by reckless media coverage - properly chastened watchers who might harbor similar vigilante tendencies? Or are they emboldened by the jury's verdict?

Have we seen the last of George Zimmerman at a defendant's table? Will Eric Holder's Department of Justice, which lent organizational and financial support to anti-Zimmerman demonstrations last year, dangle Zimmerman as a political pinata ahead of the 2014 midterm elections?

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And what shall we do, if anything, about Florida's "stand your ground" law? I mean, Stevie Wonder, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, says he's boycotting us so long as it's on the books. "Stand your ground" may not have been a card Zimmerman's defense team played, but never mind.

That said, there's nothing wrong with renewed scrutiny.

Briefly, the "stand your ground" statute extends the castle doctrine (you can defend yourself with deadly force in your private surroundings) to public spaces where you have a right to be, which would include the common areas of a gated community such as the one in Sanford where Zimmerman and Martin had their fatal confrontation.

To reiterate, Zimmerman's counsel rejected "stand your ground," choosing instead a straight self-defense strategy that, as events demonstrated, was the winning course. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to suspect, as an active member of the local neighborhood watch organization, Zimmerman had a graduate-level acquaintanceship with "stand your ground".

Now, it would be pure speculation to suggest presumed knowledge of "stand your ground" provisions prompted Zimmerman to act more aggressively than he otherwise would have. That said, it also is perfectly reasonable to reassess from time to time whether - and if so, how - "stand your ground" influences potentially volatile episodes.

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Conventional wisdom - what's driving the renewed-scrutiny bandwagon just now - claims the law is the methanol racing fuel that explodes on contact with minor disagreements. This presupposes the statute plays little or no role in restraining Florida's bullies, hotheads, louts or hair-trigger personalities who, pre-"stand your ground," were free to brandish intimidation with little expectation of reprisal from the intimidated.

I mean, maybe the law, in combination with Florida's concealed-carry statute, has had a net calming effect on otherwise combustible situations. Who wants to pick a fight at a fair or a festival or a parade knowing (a) the target has no legal obligation to retreat and (b) may be packing?

So let's have that scrutiny. Defenders of the law should invite it, understanding there is no statute that cannot be improved by studying its experience in the marketplace. Critics angling for repeal of "stand your ground" in the charged heat of Zimmerman's acquittal, meanwhile, are completely misreading the steely cable of libertarianism characteristic among Floridians. Our bottom line: We don't want to be messed with.

Will Weatherford, the state House speaker from Wesley Chapel, gets that, telling Miami-Dade Republicans at their recent Lincoln Day fundraiser, "The liberal activists tried to use that tragedy as an opportunity to take our rights as Americans. We stood our ground on 'stand your ground.'"

So far, anyway. Anyone else get the sense that the ground has just begun heating up?

So many question marks. So few satisfactory conclusions.

tjackson@tampatrib.com

(813) 371-1851

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Twitter: @tjacksonTBO

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