Monday, April 2, 2012

Intentions versus Capabilities - Part II

I’d like to open this post with an apology, because I’m deviating a little bit from my usual subject matter.  This is a blog about technology, and about how patterns of technology change and interact with daily life.  I don’t normally comment on general news stories that don’t have a direct connection with technology.  I’m making an exception this time because it touches on some themes I’ve covered before, which I’d like to reiterate from a different angle.

The story in question is the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, and the failure of Florida police to prosecute his assailant due to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” laws.  This is still a story in progress, and anything could happen, but the evidence is increasingly casting doubt on George Zimmerman’s story.  Independent analysis demonstrates it is exceedingly unlikely that the cries for help were Zimmerman’s.  It is further difficult to demonstrate that George Zimmerman had sustained the types of injuries that his story had claimed.  Add to this the undisputed fact that George Zimmerman left his car to confront Martin despite the instructions from 911 not to do so, and it’s difficult to paint this as anything other than a one-sided assault.  This is a crime.

Or is it?

Under normal circumstances, Zimmerman’s departure from his car to confront Martin would paint him fairly clearly as the aggressor.  Under the stand your ground laws, he had no duty to retreat from what he believed to be a dangerous situation, and, having deliberately entered into this situation seeking a confrontation, was justified in the use of deadly force to protect himself from what he reasonably believed was a threat.
Critics might question whether his fear of Martin, who was unarmed and a hundred pounds lighter than Zimmerman, was “reasonable”.  Unfortunately, there is no precise definition of what constitutes “reasonable”.  Certainly his fears would be shared by many other residents in his neighborhood.  Does that make them reasonable?

Regardless of how the law will be interpreted, the fact that the Florida police used it as an excuse to not initiate a criminal investigation of Zimmerman indicates that something is seriously askew.  At the root of the issue is an asymmetry of information created by the situation.  In any dispute between two individuals, each is likely to have a different narrative explaining the context, motivations, and possibly even the facts leading to the event.  In a murder, one of those narratives disappears.  The only narrative remaining belongs to somebody who will likely have every reason and every inclination to skew the facts in his own favor.  This is why imposing a duty to retreat is such a useful concept.  While it does not eliminate this type of situation – anybody can still claim they had no opportunity to retreat – it does reduce the number of situations in which an assailant can claim a legal justification for their own aggression.

I don’t believe the Florida legislature had malicious intent when they enacted this law.  I don’t expect they ever thought about the possibility of an individual committing an act of murder and using their law to claim it was self-defense.  And that’s the crux of the problem.  They didn’t think.

As I noted when I discussed SOPA, there is a world of difference between the intentions of a law, and its real life effects.  It behooves legislatures to think long and hard about the possible secondary effects of the laws they pass.  In this case, it seems they didn’t think hard enough.  The results have been lethal.

Well done, Florida.  Well done.

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