Monday 15 July 2013

On burglary, manslaughter and the Trayvon Martin case

The acquittal of Zimmerman in the murder trial of Trayvon Martin has aroused the suspicion that racial profiling is at the core of the death of the teenager. The jury also acquitted the neighbourhood watchman of manslaughter and it is this part of the verdict that is hard to understand from a European perspective.

The UK courts have encountered similar cases over the last couple of years, where people have defended their homes against burglars (which Martin was not, although he was trespassing on private property) with unusual force, sometimes leading to the death of trespassers. Yet, in contradistinction to the recent verdict in the Zimmerman case, justices in the UK have been guided by the notion of appropriate force in reaching their conclusions and convicted property owners who shot intruders.

It seems to me that the UK legal system has got things right in formulating a degree of proportionality which is to be found at the base of every retaliatory action. In other words, if somebody attacks you, you may defend yourself to prevent harm coming to you or your property but only to the extent that unnecessary harm to you and the other person is avoided. Incapacitating or even killing the other person cannot and should not be a legitimate goal of preventative action.

The circumstances of Martin's death have not been resolved as the trial unfolded. It is still unclear who attacked whom, which would be a critical piece of information to build a case of self-defence for Zimmerman. Yet, even so, the outcome strikes me as implausible even if Zimmerman had been attacked first. The use of deadly force is something that should be left to police authorities in extreme cases. Something that is hardly applicable to a neighbourhood watchman challenging a teenager with an ice tea and some sweets in his hands trespassing on a gated community.

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