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Zimmerman’s lawyer: ‘Stand your ground’ doesn’t apply in Trayvon Martin case

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Posted at 11:03 AM, Mar 24, 2012
and last updated 2012-03-24 11:03:45-04

By the CNN Wire Staff

SANFORD, Florida (CNN) – A lawyer for the man at the center of the Trayvon Martin death investigation said Florida’s “stand your ground” law doesn’t apply to the shooting that killed the unarmed teen.

“In my legal opinion, that’s not really applicable to this case. The statute on ‘stand your ground’ is primarily when you’re in your house,” said Craig Sonner, attorney for George Zimmerman.

“This is self-defense, and that’s been around for forever — that you have a right to defend yourself. So the next issue (that) is going to come up is, was he justified in using the amount of force he did?”

Trayvon Martin, 17, was killed February 26 as he walked to his father’s fiancee’s house in Sanford, Florida, after a trip to the convenience store. Police say he was shot by Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who says he was acting in self-defense.

Martin was unarmed, carrying a bag of Skittles candy and an iced tea, according to police.

The 2005 law allows people to use deadly force anywhere they have a right to be if they have reasonable fear an assailant could seriously harm them or someone else.

It also eliminated a long-standing “duty to retreat” in the face of imminent harm, asserting that would-be crime victims have the right to “stand their ground” and “meet force with force” when attacked.

Although a grand jury is scheduled to convene April 10 to look into the case, authorities have declined to arrest Zimmerman, sparking a national debate over the law and concerns about racial profiling.

The Sanford Police Department said officers were prohibited from arresting Zimmerman the night of the shooting because physical evidence and testimony supported his claim that he acted in self-defense. The police department gave the explanation to City Manager Norton Bonaparte, who included it in a letter to the community about the case, posted on the city’s website.

Authorities say they still have no information to contradict Zimmerman’s story. He said while he was patrolling his gated community, he saw Martin walking in the neighborhood and called 911 to report a suspicious person.

Zimmerman told the dispatcher he was following the boy, but the dispatcher told him that wasn’t necessary. Moments later, several neighbors called 911 to report a commotion outside, and police arrived to find Martin dead of a gunshot wound.

“Zimmerman’s statement was that he had lost sight of Trayvon and was returning to his truck to meet the police officer when he says he was attacked by Trayvon,” the police said in the letter posted by Bonaparte.

Sonner says his client was injured that night with a broken nose and a serious cut on the back of his head. He said the injuries “were from Trayvon Martin, I assume.”

The family of Zimmerman, a white Hispanic, says he has been wrongly described as a racist.

Zimmerman’s attorney said he doesn’t see anything that indicates his client is a racist.

Sonner said Zimmerman and his wife served as mentors to two teenage children of an African-American woman. Though funding was cut for the program under which they cared for the teenagers, the couple continued their efforts on their own, taking the 13-year-old girl and 14-year-old boy on outings to a mall, a science center and a basketball game. They also helped in a fund-raiser for a predominantly African-American church, the lawyer said.

“I do not believe that’s the indication of a person who’s a racist,” Sonner said.

President Barack Obama praised Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s decision to create a task force to review the “stand your ground” law and said it would be important to “examine the laws and the context for what happened as well as the specifics of the incident.”

The president also obliquely addressed the racial component of the case, saying it struck home for him because, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

The teenager’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, said in a statement that it was “humbling” that Obama talked about their son. “The president’s personal comments touch us deeply and made us wonder: If his son looked like Trayvon and wore a hoodie, would he be suspicious, too?”

Trayvon Martin was wearing a hooded sweatshirt when he was killed.

Sonner said he and Zimmerman have not discussed what happened the night Martin was shot, though he said Zimmerman has talked with authorities — unaccompanied by counsel — whenever they have asked him to do so.

The case has prompted a Justice Department investigation, which is in the fact-finding stage.

Sonner said he advised his client to keep a low profile, as “I believe his life is in danger.”

“This case is spinning out of control,” he said. “I hope there’s a way to rein things in so it doesn’t become an issue of a racial battle. I hope that things come back so that there can be a time for justice and for healing and not for just skipping the whole judicial process and going straight to sentencing.”

Police are holding the gun used in the shooting as evidence, he said.

“Whatever transpired that night, it’s unfortunate that there’s a young man in the prime of his life that was left dead,” Sonner said.

Heated debate has erupted over whether Zimmerman used a racial slur during the 911 call, which was released this week.

A top CNN audio engineer enhanced the sound of the 911 call, and several members of CNN’s editorial staff repeatedly reviewed the tape but could reach no consensus.

Whether Zimmerman used such language before shooting Martin is key, according to CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

“It’s extremely, extremely significant because the federal government is not allowed to prosecute just your ordinary, everyday murder,” he said. “Two people fighting on the street is not a federal crime. However, if one person shoots another based on racial hostility, racial animus, that does become a federal crime.”

A special prosecutor appointed by the governor, Angela Corey, said Friday that her office can charge Zimmerman, clear him, or send the case to the grand jury.

Protests about the case took place across the country Friday. Congressional staffers rallied in an event dubbed “Hoodies on the Hill” organized by several staff organizations, while students walked out of classes at six Miami-area high schools to protest police handling of the case and demand changes in Florida’s law.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools issued a statement saying Martin’s mother asked students to focus instead on signing petitions, attending rallies and praying.

More demonstrations are planned for this weekend in New York, South Carolina and Virginia, as well as for Monday in Sanford and Atlanta.

Amid the protests and calls for reform, some Florida lawmakers said it was time to revisit the 2005 “stand your ground” law that eliminated a long-standing provision requiring people facing danger outside of their homes to first attempt to retreat before meeting a threat with force.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who signed the bill into law, said Friday he also does not believe the law applies to the case.

“Stand your ground means stand your ground. It doesn’t mean chase after somebody who’s turned their back,” Bush said while visiting a university campus in Texas.

Since the law’s adoption, the number of justifiable homicide rulings in Florida has nearly tripled, according to the state Department of Law Enforcement.

“We foretold that this would happen while we debated this law, and a lot of us voted against it,” Florida state Rep. Christopher Smith, a Democrat, said Friday. “They turned a blind eye to it. But now that America’s looking at Florida, now people are starting to react and starting to really recognize what we were saying back in 2005 in the Florida House.”

But a co-sponsor of the law, Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said the law was not at fault. He credited the statute for a “serious decrease” in violent crime.

Baxley said it is up to the grand jury to decide whether any laws were broken, but he left no doubt where he stands.

“Quite frankly, anyone who steps out in a pursuit in a confrontational mode with a firearm? That’s not a self-protection act. You’ve initiated something.”

The incident has damaged relations between the Sanford Police Department and the city’s African-American residents, Bonaparte, the city manager, said Friday.

The depths to which community relations had sunk was underscored by the arrest Friday of a 68-year-old Melbourne Beach white man for allegedly threatening to harm Bill Lee, who stepped down “temporarily” on Thursday as Sanford’s police chief.

“You and your family deserve to be hunted down and shot like a dog, just like Trayvon Martin,” says the e-mail that led to the arrest.

CNN’s Kim Segal contributed to this report.