All CATEGORIES
☰ Menu
Akron Law Café

Zimmerman's Low Burden of Proof on the Issue of Self Defense

By Wilson Huhn Published: April 13, 2012

In her news conference announcing that George Zimmerman was being charged with second degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin, Florida Special Prosecutor Angela Corey mentioned several times that self-defense is an "affirmative defense" under Florida law. She also said that "Stand Your Ground" is "a tough affirmative defense to overcome." It will be "tough" for the prosecution because although Zimmerman has to introduce some evidence that he acted in self-defense, that doesn't mean that he has to convince the jury that he acted in self-defense. All he has to do is to create a "reasonable doubt" as to whether he acted in self-defense. A proposed amendment to the Florida Jury Instructions makes that perfectly clear.

Six years ago in Murray v. State, 937 So.2d 277, 279 (Fla. 4th Dist. 2006), the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Florida ruled that once a defendant in a criminal case has introduced proof that he acted in self-defense the jury is entitled to consider the defense, and the jury may not convict the defendant unless it finds beyond a reasonable that he did not act in self-defense. The Fourth District Court of Appeal stated:

But, with these additional facts, did he also incur a 'burden of proof' identical to the State's? That is, did he have to prove the additional facts for self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt?  Or was he instead bound by some lesser standard-say, the greater weight of the evidence? Indeed, how about something even less onerous than that? Was he merely obligated to lay the additional facts before the jury, without any burden as to the strength of their probative value - other than they might be true? The answer is this. No, he did not have to prove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. He did not have to prove even that his additional facts were more likely true than not. The real nature of his burden concerning his defense of justification is that his evidence of additional facts need merely leave the jury with a reasonable doubt about whether he was justified in using deadly force. Hence, if he wanted his self-defense to be considered, it was necessary to present evidence that his justification might be true. It would then be up to the jury to decide whether his evidence produced a reasonable doubt about his claim of self-defense.

Last year the Fifth District Court of Appeal quoted this language from  Murray and followed the same rule in the case of  Montijo v. State, 61 So.3d 424 (Fla. 5th Dist, 2011). In  Montijo the trial judge had instructed the jury that the defendant had the burden of proving that he acted in self-defense "beyond a reasonable doubt." Montijo's attorney did not object to the jury instruction, but the appellate court found that the trial judge had committed a "fundamental error" by giving that instruction and ordered a new trial for the defendant. The Fifth District Court of Appeal stated:
The inclusion of the phrase 'beyond a reasonable doubt' in the jury instruction placed the burden upon Montijo to prove  self-defense, depriving him of a fair trial and rising to the level of fundamental error. Accordingly, we reverse.

Seminole County, where Trayvon Martin was killed, is in the  is in the Fifth Appellate District, so the rule in  Montijo is controlling unless and until the law is changed.

Florida Standard Jury Instructions online are in accord with the courts' rulings in Murray and Montijo. Instruction 3.6(f) states:

If in your consideration of the issue of self-defense you have a reasonable doubt on the question of whether the defendant was justified in the use of deadly force, you should find the defendant not guilty. However, if from the evidence you are convinced that the defendant was not justified in the use of deadly force, you should find [him] [her] guilty if all the elements of the charge have been proved.

On April 1, 2012, the  Florida Bar News published proposed amendments to the Standard Jury Instructions. The proposed amendment to Instruction 3.6(f) would strengthen this language to clarify that the jury may convict the defendant only if it finds  beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense. The proposed amendment adds the underlined phrase to the charge to the jury:
If in your consideration of the issue of self-defense you have a reasonable doubt on the question of whether the defendant was justified in the use of deadly force, you should find the defendant not guilty. However, if from the evidence you are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was not justified in the use of deadly force, you should find [him] [her] guilty if all the elements of the charge have been proved.

The bottom line is that Zimmerman cannot be convicted of murder or manslaughter unless the evidence shows beyond a reasonable doubt that he did not act in self-defense.

OHIO.COM VIDEOS

SUBSCRIBE VIA RSS

  • Main Blog Promo
  • Cavs Blog Promo
  • Browns Blog Promo
  • Indians Blog Promo
  • Beer Blog Promo
  • Fracking Blog Promo
  • High School Blog Promo
  • Zips Blog Promo
  • Akron Dish Food Blog
Prev Next

Pages


Blogroll