Duke Law Examines Legal Questions Surrounding Trayvon Martin Case

What people perceive the Florida "Stand Your Ground" law says may be more important than what it actually says, according to a Duke Law professor, offering one of many examples of the complicated legal questions surrounding the death of a African-American teen in Sanford, Fla., last month.

Professor Samuel Buell, a former federal prosecutor said the Florida self-defense statute could be interpreted or misread a number of ways.   He added that that the attention to the controversial Florida law, which may not be applicable in this case, could actually detract from a more salient discussion of gun rights.

The alleged shooter "had no extra entitlement to rely on self-defense just because he's legally entitled to carry a gun," Buell said.

Buell and other Duke Law faculty members spoke to a large audience of law students and others Thursday during a lunchtime panel discussion of the Trayvon Martin case Thursday.  The case in which Martin was shot and killed by a white neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, last month in Sanford, Fla., has been swirling in the media for weeks with new legal developments nearly every day.

Other speakers included James Coleman, Jr., co-director of the Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility; Sara Sun Beale, who specializes in federal criminal law; and Margaret Hu, a former Department of Justice attorney.

The professors agreed that all the facts in the case have yet to be seen and some of their comments were speculative.

"Editorially, it's hard for me to see how this kid could be the aggressor or would have warranted the use of deadly force. But I don't know what happened," Coleman said. The police department's basis for not arresting Zimmerman seems to rely on its understanding of immunity in cases of self-defense, he said.

The Justice Department's role in the case has served a "looking over the shoulder effect," Hu said, and while the Sanford police department is not under a formal investigation, federal investigators are looking at possible civil rights violations.

"The standard of proof is that they need evidence to show racial animus," said Hu, whose research and teaching focuses on civil rights. "It's a difficult and ambiguous standard because hate is not defined by the law. They would need to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman acted intentionally.

Beale said the federal government cannot prosecute for murder or manslaughter, but can prosecute for a violation of the hate crime law which covers crimes motivated by someone's actual or perceived race, national origin, religion or color. The law was expanded to included sexual orientation in 2009.

"Sometimes the federal government needs to step in when the state is unable -- or unwilling -- to act," Beale said, citing the 1992 Rodney King hearing which led to the L.A. riots when a jury found Los Angeles police officers not guilty of the most serious charges in a beating of an African-American man.

The event was organized by the Black Law Students' Association and sponsored by Duke's Program in Public Law.