I'm glad to hear the Justice Department is looking into the killing of Trayvon Martin. After all, if the department can investigate the killing of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, it can do it in Florida.
By now you've probably heard about the 17-year-old's death and its outrageously suspicious circumstances. It's a story with tragically familiar scenes, especially to those of us who have raised young black males: A young white Hispanic man follows a "suspicious-looking" black teenager, confronts and kills him in "self-defense."
What adds an extra edge and national relevance to this tragic episode is the Florida law under which the shooter claims self-defense. The "stand your ground" law, promoted by the National Rifle Association and signed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush in 2005, allows anyone, anywhere, to use deadly force against another person if he believes his safety or life is in danger. It's the job of the state to prove the act was not justified.
The law's impact was dramatic. The St. Petersburg Times found that five years after the law went into effect, claims of justifiable homicides in Florida more than tripled, from just over 30 to more than 100 in 2010. The stand-your-ground defense was used in 93 cases involving 65 deaths during that period, and in almost every one of them, it worked.
Bush called it a "good, common-sense anti-crime" bill. Prosecutors, gun-control advocates and other critics called it a "shoot-first" law and, more bluntly, a "license to kill and go free."
Born in controversy, the law is living down to the low expectations of its critics. Yet more than a dozen other states followed suit. The Trayvon Martin case offers an excellent illustration of why they all should reconsider that move.
From what we know, the shooter, George Zimmerman, makes a poor fit even for the state's notoriously lenient self-defense law. According to police, Martin was walking back from a local convenience store to a house that he and his father were visiting in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26. At about the same time, Zimmerman, a 28-year-old neighborhood watch captain, called 911 from his SUV to report the youth looked "real suspicious," according to a 911 call released by police.
And after the dispatcher asked what race the youth appeared to be, Zimmerman said young Martin "looks black." How much did race have to do with Zimmerman's suspicions? That's just one of many questions that cries out for an answer, which is why we have courts.
A bigger problem for Zimmerman's case: When the emergency dispatcher asks, "Are you following him," Zimmerman responds, "Yeah," and the dispatcher discourages him with, "OK, we don't need you to do that." But, within minutes, other 911 calls to police report Martin and Zimmerman are fighting and one was "yelling help." Screams for help can be heard in the background in at least one call, along with the sound of gunfire.
Was Zimmerman's life threatened by a kid he greatly outweighed? The only items found in the teenager's possession, according to reports, were the bag of Skittles and the Arizona Iced Tea he picked up at the store. Self-defense? Investigators need to ask: Who was defending who against whom?
The Seminole-Brevard state's attorney's office is proceeding with its investigation, and Gov. Rick Scott has asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to join the probe. Better tardy than never. They just needed a little national encouragement.
But this case is bigger than Martin and Zimmerman. The stand-your-ground law itself needs to be investigated, beginning with how much it may cause police and prosecutors to take their foot off the gas pedal on their road to justice.