No, Florida's Stand Your Ground Law Did Not Determine Either Zimmerman or Dunn Cases

Both Zimmerman and Dunn argued self-defense.

February 16, 2014, 10:06 PM

Feb. 17, 2014 — -- When a Florida jury deadlocked on the first degree murder charge against software developer Michael Dunn, the state's controversial "Stand Your Ground Law" was once again hoisted into the media spotlight.

Dunn was convicted on four other charges in the case, in which he fired 10 times at an SUV after an argument with the teens inside about how loud their music was, and will likely be sentenced to a minimum of 60 years behind bars.

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As in the case of George Zimmerman, acquitted in the killing of Trayvon Martin, the public outrage was often directed or misdirected, at the Florida law.

Many, including legal commentators who should know better, repeatedly citing the statute as a crucial issue in both cases.

And yet neither defendant invoked the controversial aspects of Florida's law. In fact, both defendants argued basic self defense law that would have been similar in just about every state in the nation.

The relevant portion of the law of self defense in Florida reads: "A person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if: He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself"

The controversial section of that law relates to the fact that there is no "duty to retreat," meaning that in non-stand your ground states one must, in most cases, first attempt to get away if he or she can.

In Florida, however, there is no such requirement and the shooter may "stand his or her ground" when firing in self defense.

But the duty to retreat was not an issue in either Dunn or Zimmerman. In both cases the defendants argued that deadly force was used because they "reasonably" believed that it was necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily injury. That, is at its core, no different than the law in almost every other state.

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Zimmerman claimed Trayvon Martin was pummeling him and Dunn that he had a shotgun pointed at him by a young man saying "I'm going to kill you." If Dunn's account were true -- and it was contradicted by other witnesses -- then retreat hardly seems like an option.

Regardless of what one thinks of the defenses (and because of Zimmerman's injuries and the testimony of eyewitnesses, his defense was far stronger legally than Dunn's claim, which was only supported by his own testimony) the controversial aspect of the law was hardly the issue.

The other major and controverted change in Florida's law was that one who claims he or she was justified in using deadly force may seek to avoid any liability, criminal or civil, by proving at a pre-trial hearing that the shooting was justified.

So a Florida judge can rule that someone who has shot and killed doesn't even have to go to trial and that he or she should be immune from civil lawsuits as well. Yet neither Dunn nor Zimmerman sought that sort of immunity.

Others have focused on the fact that Dunn need only "reasonably" believe that there was an imminent threat, even if there was no actual threat at all. For example The New York Times reported Sunday:

"The trial, which lasted six days before deliberations began on Wednesday, was the latest courtroom test for Florida's expansive self-defense statutes, including the so-called Stand Your Ground provision. Under the law, Mr. Dunn needed only to have been convinced that he saw a shotgun, whether or not one was present.

Yet that is no way unique to Florida or stand your ground laws. The most common example is when someone is confronted with what turns out to be a toy gun, he or she still has the right to use deadly force in any state if he or she "reasonably" believed the weapon was real, even if turns out there was no actual threat.

Others mistakenly claim these are "stand your ground" cases because the entire self defense statute is read to Florida jurors with the stand your ground language included. But, of course, reading jury instructions with some language that is inapplicable to the case at hand is common in all types of cases and says nothing about whether the controversial aspects of the law are at issue.

Yet others note that certain jurors in the Zimmerman case, for example, cited the stand your ground law to explain their verdict. The inexact language of jurors doesn't change the reality that the law would have been the same in any other state and that none of the controversial parts of the law were relevant.

The only state with a significantly different law when it comes to classic self defense is Ohio where rather than the prosecution having the burden of proof, a defendant who claims self-defense adopts the burden to prove the case. There is no question that placing the burden on the defendant can make a conviction far easier.

Is it possible that gun owners in Florida feel more emboldened to use their weapons because of the expansive protections embedded in the law? Sure, but that does not change the legal analysis.

Is it possible that Dunn not having a duty to retreat made his defense slightly stronger? It's theoretically possible, but based on the facts presented it becomes just that, theoretical.

I am no fan of stand your ground laws but I am a fan of accuracy when it comes to sensitive and potentially explosive trials and verdicts.

Dan Abrams is ABC News' Chief Legal Correspondent and Anchor of "Nightline."

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