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Self-Defense, Deadly Force, and Great Bodily Harm

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At first, the Zimmerman/Martin case was all about race.  But now it's not, says this article in the WaPo.

Next, it was going to be about Florida's "stand your ground" law.  But it's not.  The prosecution's best witness says Martin had Zimmerman pinned on the ground and was beating him in a mixed martial arts "ground and pound" maneuver.  See ABC story.  Retreat wasn't an option.

It appears that in the end this much-ballyhooed case will be a regular self-defense case.  Florida's self-defense statute (ยง776.013(3)) says:

A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
Aside from the "no duty to retreat" language, inapplicable to this case, this is standard self-defense law, the same as most states.

However disagreeable Zimmerman's acts of following Martin and confronting him may have been, they were not criminal.  If Martin is the one who crossed the line from verbal confrontation to physical assault, as appears to be the case, then what is left to argue about?  It looks like the key issue is "great bodily harm."  How much injury do you have to be in danger of before you can shoot the assailant?
Along with use of deadly force, the question of how much bodily harm is "great" comes up in battery cases, distinguishing aggravated battery from simple battery.  What is the precise legal definition of "great bodily harm" in Florida?  There isn't one.  See Heck v. State, 774 So. 2d 844, 845 (Fla. App. 2000).  In that case,

During the drive to his destination, appellant struck the victim twice on the head with his hand. The altercation continued after arrival, as the victim tried to escape and was grabbed by the hair and dragged back to the vehicle. He threatened her with a paint tool held to her throat. Appellant also punched the victim in the eye, sending her falling backward. As a result of the punch, she suffered a broken eye socket. One-third of the bone is missing, and the fragments are in the victim's sinuses. Appellant testified that the victim injured her eye when she fell and struck it.
The fact that Martin was unarmed does not preclude a finding that Zimmerman was reasonably in fear of great bodily harm.  People can and do inflict great bodily harm with their bare hands.

There is no standard jury instruction defining great bodily harm, so the judge crafted one: "great bodily harm in the context of aggravated battery means great as distinguished from slight, trivial, minor or moderate harm [and] as such, does not include mere bruises as are likely to be inflicted in a simple assault and battery."  The first part is a tautology, but the second part gives us some idea.  More than mere bruises.  In the Heck case, the court said the jury instruction would not be ground for reversal anyway because the victim's injuries were necessarily "great."

However, we also conclude that even if the jury instruction was error, it was harmless. The victim's orbital fracture, swelling, and bruising in this case, was sufficient evidence of great bodily harm. See, e.g., Cooley v. State, 686 So. 2d 732 (Fla. 2d DCA 1997)(fractured leg requiring surgery constituted great bodily harm); Coronado, 654 So. 2d at 1270 (facial fracture, numbness, and pain around the eye constitutes great bodily harm); Owens v. State, 289 So. 2d 472, 474 (Fla. 2d DCA 1974)(victim incurred great bodily harm where, as a result of a battery, victim received a lump on her mouth, scar on her face, and a bruise). Appellant did not contradict the extent of the victim's injuries.
The question is not how much injury Zimmerman actually suffered, so the medical testimony on his injuries is only marginally relevant.  How much injury did he reasonably believe was he in danger of?  Did Martin's "ground and pound" place Zimmerman in danger of as much injury as Heck and the cases it cites deem to be "great bodily injury"?  Looks that way to me.

1 Comment

It looks like the Heck court defined great bodily harm by using California's pattern jury instruction defining great bodily injury.

When you add to the calculation the Florida jury instruction that requires the jurors to acquit if the prosecution fails to disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt, the result in this case should be crystal clear to any objective juror whose decision is limited to the facts and the law, and who does not decide this case by emotion or fear.

So, my prediction: Emotion and fear win out. The jurors reach a "compromise" verdict convicting Zimmerman of manslaughter.

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