The decision of Florida's special prosecutor to file a second-degree murder charge against George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot to death an unarmed 17-year-old black youth he had followed out of his gated community, marks a needed stand for justice and a welcome challenge to Florida's misbegotten "stand your ground" law.
The shooting six weeks ago of Trayvon Martin, a student who had no criminal record, should never have occurred. It would not have happened if Zimmerman had not disregarded a 911 dispatcher's warning not to follow the youth, who was walking through his gated community.
Zimmerman had made several calls to the police in Sanford, a suburb just north of Orlando, after he saw Martin in his neighborhood. During one of those calls, he left his car to follow the young man as the dispatcher warned him not to do that. "O.K. We don't need you to do that," the dispatcher said. Zimmerman responded, "O.K.," but followed the youth anyway.
Minutes later, Sanford police received a report that Zimmerman had shot and killed the youth, who was returning to his father's residence from a convenience store, carrying a bag of Skittles in one hand and iced-tea in the other. Zimmerman, 28, and armed with a 9-millimeter pistol, had fatally shot Martin in the chest at close range. He claimed Martin had knocked him to the ground and that he feared for his life.
The case rightly elicited outrage in Sanford -- and across the nation -- as details of the shooting spread. The circumstances have clearly appeared to beg an in-depth investigation: why did Zimmerman pursue the youth; how did their encounter start; what physical evidence suggested grounds to kill the unarmed young man? Sanford's police provided little evidence of a thorough inquiry, and they had quickly released Zimmerman after questioning without filing any charges.
Since these circumstances became broadly public, Sanford's police chief stepped down, and Florida authorities initiated an investigation by the attorney general of Jacksonville, who was appointed as special prosecutor. Her decision Wednesday to file a charge of second-degree murder appears to be the proper charge.
A charge of first-degree murder would require evidence of pre-meditation. The second-degree charge indicates grounds for a needless killing, but without pre-meditation. It carries a penalty of up to life in prison.
At issue is not just a wrongful death, but the state law that allows a citizen who holds a permit to carry a gun to use deadly force without the duty to retreat from an encounter in which he or she feels threatened. That law applies not just for Floridians in their homes, but in almost any public space. Though police and prosecutors in Florida objected to it, Florida's legislature enacted it in 2005 at the urging of the National Rifle Association. Versions of the law have since been adopted in Tennessee and 22 other states.
In Florida, unprosecuted homicides in which self-defense has been claimed have tripled in recent years. Prosecutors say that in the absence of hard physical evidence, it's hard to disprove a claim of self-defense when the victim is dead.
Florida has a duty to tighten the law, or repeal it. No citizen should be legally allowed to stalk and fatally shoot someone on the grounds of self-defense. That makes a mockery of justice, and invites a vigilante bent this country -- saturated with guns -- can ill afford.