Trayvon Martin in Washington State

So while I really do plan to focus almost exclusively on civil litigation on this blog, there may be times when I think certain criminal-law matters or other law-related topics would be of interest to a Washington civil litigator.  The case of Trayvon Martin is one of those times. 

If you’re not familiar with the case, Trayvon Martin was an unarmed 17-year-old African American student who was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch captain in a gated community in an Orlando, Florida suburb.  Trayvon was with his dad watching the NBA all-star game when he went out to get some candy at halftime.  On his way back to the house, the watchman thought Trayvon looked suspicious, chased him, and shot him.  The watchman – George Zimmerman – told police that he had acted in self-defense, so the police took no action against him.  This claim of self-defense has led many people to examine Florida’s “stand your ground” law which states that a person has no duty to attempt retreat from a dangerous situation before deciding to employ deadly force in self-defense.

As usual, Mother Jones has excellent continuing coverage of the situation, with frequent informative updates.  (The above summary is based on the Mother Jones reporting.)  I’m not going to be covering the case here, but I thought it would be useful to post about Washington’s own “stand your ground” law in light of the events in Florida.

Washington, unlike Florida, does not have a “stand your ground” statute.  But Washington case law has developed a similar doctrine.   The most recent case on point is the Supreme Court’s 2003 opinion in State v. Redmond.

Redmond involved a fight in a school parking lot between a then-current student (Bryan Johnson) and a former student (Reynaldo Redmond).  The fight was allegedly about things Johnson had said about Redmond’s ex-girlfriend.  There was conflicting testimony at trial, but Redmond testified:

that he met Johnson in the school parking lot by chance while he was at the school picking up his friend’s brother. He testified that he did not intend to start a fight with Johnson and punched Johnson in self-defense only after Johnson stepped toward him with clenched fists.

The prosecution argued that Redmond went looking for Johnson in the parking lot to start a fight, coaxed Johnson out of his car, and then punched Johnson while Johnson was attempting to return to his car.  Of course, Redmond disputed this version of events.

In any event, Redmond requested a “no duty to retreat” jury instruction in support of his theory of self-defense.  Redmond argued that once the fight started, he had a right to defend himself and did not have a duty to flee—the law allowed him to stay and fight.  However, the trial judge refused to give the “no duty to retreat” instruction.  The jury convicted Johnson of assault and the Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction.

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded.  In so doing, the Court reaffirmed Washington’s broad doctrine of self-defense.  According to the Court, the “law is well settled that there is no duty to retreat when a person is assaulted in a place where he or she has a right to be.”  There was no dispute that Redmond had a right to be in the school parking lot at the time of the altercation.

The Court noted that based on both parties’ versions of events, Redmond had “an easy opportunity to retreat” from the confrontation.  But such an opportunity did not bar Redmond from raising a claim of self-defense.  Indeed, the Court cautioned that a proper jury instruction was necessary to prevent jurors from engaging in “their own assessment of the defendant’s opportunity to retreat.”

However, the existence of this doctrine does not mean that Trayvon’s killer could successfully claim self-defense were he to be tried under Washington law.  Even if Zimmerman thought he was in danger from the “suspicious” African American teenager in a hoodie, self-defense is only available if a person’s belief of danger is both (1) held in good faith and (2) reasonable.  See, e.g., Washington Pattern Instruction — Criminal 17.04. So while actual danger is not necessary, there must be a reasonable and actually held belief of danger to support self-defense.  One hopes that a kid walking with a bag of Skittles would not support a legally sufficient reasonable belief of danger.

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