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Trayvon Martin and Justified Self Defense in Washington State

The fact that George Zimmerman fatally shot and killed Trayvon Martin is tragic. It appears that Zimmerman was an overzealous neighborhood watchdog, armed with a firearm, and was looking for trouble. However, although Mr. Zimmerman’s attitude and actions may have been simply outrageous, that does not necessarily mean that he is guilty of murder… although he could be. The decision as to whether George Zimmerman is a murderer may ultimately rest in the hands of a jury.

To read more about the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin click here.

In Washington State, individuals have the right to use lawful force in certain situations. Washington State law provides that no person shall be placed in legal jeopardy for using reasonable means to protect him or herself, his or her family, or property or for coming to the aid of another who is in danger of assault, robbery, kidnapping, arson, burglary, rape, or any other violent crime.

Indeed, several circumstances exist where an individual is justified in using force. Sometimes, in some situations even lethal force that may cause death to another may be justified.

In general a citizen may be justified in using deadly force for self defense or to defend another if the citizen (1) has an honest and reasonable belief that there is a threat of imminent death or great bodily harm (to him or herself or another); and (2) the force used is proportional to the threat. Additionally, a citizen has no duty to retreat before using force. Further, a citizen may be justified in using deadly force for defense of property against a burglary. In fact, at one time in an older case the Supreme Court of Washington determined that the use of self-defense negates the mental state of intent–a necessary element for murder. See State v. McCullum, 98 Wn.2d 484, 495, 656 P.2d 1064, 1071 (1983), page 30, 37, and 38.. Ultimately, the use of self defense is not a crime.

The key is the word “reasonable.” To successfully assert self defense, it is not enough for a person to merely have the subjective belief that there is a threat of imminent death or bodily harm. The belief must be objectively reasonable–that is, an ordinary average reasonable person in the shoes of the person asserting self-defense must have had such a belief. It may not be enough for the person asserting self defense to have merely been afraid or frightened.

However, self defense or defense of others cannot be asserted as a defense if the person who claims that the use of force was justified was the FIRST aggressor. See State v. Craig, 82 Wash.2d 777, 514 P.2d 151 (1973), page 12.

Therefore, had George Zimmerman fatally shot and killed Trayvon Martin in Washington, one question that would have to be answered would be whether Zimmerman provoked Martin. 911 recordings reveal that prior to the shooting, 911 dispatch told Zimmerman not to follow Martin. It is unknown whether Zimmerman adhered to this request. Although the fact that Zimmerman did not comply with the dispatcher’s instruction is of no legal consequence–it is possible that Zimmerman continued on following Martin and provoked Martin. Therefore, Martin may have actually been the individual acting in self-defense as opposed to Zimmerman. If such is the case, had this tragedy occurred in Washington State, Zimmerman would not be able to assert that he was using self-defense. Rather, Zimmerman would be considered a murderer despite his claim of self defense.

In a nutshell, if Zimmerman provoked Martin or was the first aggressor and Martin used force in response to Zimmerman, and Zimmerman then responded by using force–Zimmerman would be unable to assert self-defense.

Nevertheless, despite the media’s speculation and conclusions, it does not appear that, as of now, anyone other than Zimmerman truly knows what happened. A jury may decide what happened if the case ultimately proceeds to trial.

The attorneys at Platt & Buescher have been providing the citizens of Western Washington with representation in cases concerning self-defense since 1990.