The shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida, which sparked a national discussion about "stand your ground" laws, has become ammunition in the North Carolina U.S. Senate race.
The Senate Majority PAC, which aims to elect Democrats, ran a radio ad urging higher turnout among black voters. The ad attacks Thom Tillis, the Republican speaker of the North Carolina House, challenging Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. The ad makes a series of claims about Tillis including this one:
"Tillis even led the effort to pass the type of ‘stand your ground’ laws that caused the shooting death of Trayvon Martin."
The radio ad was captured by the conservative blogger SisterToldjah and sparked considerable media attention. It prompted a conservative group to counterattack with a radio ad accusing the Democrats of "race baiting." While we are focused on the claim about whether Florida’s "stand your ground" law killed Trayvon, other media reports dissected Tillis’ role in the North Carolina law, which Tillis voted in favor of.
Trayvon Martin and "stand your ground" law
The fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin of Miami Gardens on Feb. 26, 2012, and the acquittal of George Zimmerman the following year ignited political debate over race, gun rights and Florida’s "stand your ground" law.
The law, which was approved overwhelmingly by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2005, allows people to use deadly force when they believe their life is at risk. The law, promoted by the National Rifle Association, now exists in about two dozen states.
Trayvon, a black 17-year-old, was returning from a convenience store and walking through a gated neighborhood where he was staying with his father. Zimmerman, a white-Hispanic neighborhood watchman, called a non-emergency police number to report Trayvon as "suspicious." A violent struggle followed and Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon.
Zimmerman waived his right to a "stand your ground" hearing before trial, and did not cite it in his defense during the trial.
But the law was cited in jury instructions:
"If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony."
In July 2013, the jury found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder.
After the verdict, Dan Gelber, a former federal prosecutor and state legislator from Miami Beach who was a critic of the law in 2005, wrote on his blog that jurors would have received different instructions under the old law, which said:
"The defendant cannot justify the use of force likely to cause death or great bodily harm unless he used every reasonable means within his power and consistent with his own safety to avoid the danger before resorting to that force The fact that the defendant was wrongfully attacked cannot justify his use of force likely to cause death or great bodily harm if by retreating he could have avoided the need to use that force."
(Gelber is now an adviser to Charlie Crist’s Democratic campaign for governor in Florida.)
It’s difficult to quantify what extent "stand your ground" law played in the jury’s decision.
One juror told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that the jury discussed the "stand your ground" law.
"It became very confusing. We had stuff thrown at us. We had the second-degree murder charge, the manslaughter charge, then we had self-defense, ‘stand your ground,’ and I think there was one other one."
The juror, who was unnamed, said the murder or manslaughter charge did not apply "because of the heat of the moment and the ‘stand your ground.’ "
But while the "stand your ground" law could have played a role for the jury, the law itself didn’t pull the trigger in the shooting.
It’s impossible to fully evaluate Zimmerman’s thinking when he shot Trayvon, but one factor could have been that Zimmerman was a wannabe cop -- he had been rejected for a job with the Prince William County, Va., police department. Racial profiling could have played a role; Trayvon was a black male teenager wearing a hoodie. And then we will mention the obvious: Zimmerman had a gun.
Zimmerman said in a TV interview in 2012 he had never heard of "stand your ground" until after the shooting, though during the trial the prosecution presented evidence that Zimmerman took a criminal-litigation course in which the instructor said he covered the "stand your ground" law. Zimmerman received an "A" in the course in 2010.
The Senate Majority PAC’s back-up for the ad cites an article in Mother Jones shortly after the acquittal, which points to Zimmerman taking that course:
"In reality, ‘stand your ground’ played a major role, from Martin's death to Zimmerman's acquittal. ... An armed Zimmerman knew about ‘stand your ground’ years ago."
A spokesman for the PAC, Ty Matsdorf, didn’t respond to PolitiFact’s questions other than sending us the ad backup. He gave a statement to the New York Times defending the ad in general terms.
But two defense attorneys we interviewed argued that the "stand your ground" law itself didn’t play a provable role.
"I don’t recall any evidence that he made a conscious decision to rely on the law before acting," said Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. Attorney in Miami now in private practice. " ‘Stand your ground’ may have led to the acquittal of George Zimmerman; that’s a more accurate statement. It’s led to other acquittals, too."
"The law didn’t cause his death," said David Weinstein, a former state and federal prosecutor and now a Miami defense attorney. "The bullet that got fired by George Zimmerman’s gun is what caused Trayvon Martin’s death."
After the Trayvon case, efforts to get rid of Florida’s "stand your ground" law went nowhere in the Republican-led Legislature. In fact, in 2014 the Legislature added that it applies to warning shots. The law has remained a hot topic nationwide, including in Florida’s race between Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Crist. During the Oct. 15 debate at Broward College, Scott said he would not change the law, while Crist said it is "fundamentally flawed" and needs to be fixed.
A Senate Majority PAC radio ad said, "Tillis even led the effort to pass the type of ‘stand your ground’ laws that caused the shooting death of Trayvon Martin."
The part we focused on is whether Florida’s "stand your ground" law killed Trayvon. There are plenty of factors that could have contributed to George Zimmerman shooting Trayvon including racial profiling and his desire to be a law enforcement officer (not to mention the obvious: his access to a gun).
And the "stand your ground" law could have influenced the jury’s decision to acquit Zimmerman of murder. However, it is an overstatement to suggest that the law is to blame for Trayvon’s death.
We rate this claim False.