MIAMI (Reuters) - Lawyers for a Florida man charged in the shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin said on Thursday they will seek a hearing under a controversial self-defense law that could result in the dismissal of criminal charges against him.
George Zimmerman’s lawyers said they saw “clear support for a strong claim of self-defense” after prosecutors released much of their evidence in the case.
Zimmerman, 28, has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder in the February 26 shooting death of Martin in the central Florida of Sanford. He claims he shot the unarmed 17-year-old in self defense while acting as a neighborhood watch volunteer.
Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law allows people to use deadly force when they fear great bodily harm or death. Supporters of the law, which was enacted in 2005, argue it is intended to serve as a deterrent to violent crime, but critics charge it encourages vigilante justice.
In a hearing under “Stand Your Ground,” a judge, not a jury, determines whether evidence meets criteria laid out in the law, said David Weinstein, a former Florida state and federal prosecutor now in private practice in Miami.
If the judge rules in Zimmerman’s favor, he would be granted immunity from prosecution in Martin’s death.
“If Zimmerman wins the hearing, it’s case over,” said Weinstein.
On the other hand, if the case goes forward to a full-blown trial, the hearing would offer the prosecution a good look at the defense strategy, he added.
“This is your shot. You lay it all out,” said Weinstein.
Lawyers for Zimmerman said it would take several months to prepare for the hearing, which they expect to focus on whether Zimmerman “reasonably believed that his use of his weapon was necessary to prevent bodily harm to himself.”
Zimmerman shot and killed Martin during a confrontation in a gated community. Martin was walking back from a store when Zimmerman called a 911 dispatcher and said the teen looked suspicious.
Zimmerman said he shot Martin after Martin attacked him and repeatedly slammed his head to the ground. Citing the self-defense law, police initially declined to arrest Zimmerman for several weeks after the shooting.
Minutes before he was killed, Martin spoke with a girlfriend on his cellphone. That conversation may prove to be crucial testimony in the hearing, said Charles Rose, a professor at the Stetson University College of Law.
“The hearing may very well rotate around what Trayvon Martin did or did not say while he was on the phone right before the altercation,” said Rose.
Ben Crump, a lawyer for Martin’s family, said he expects the case will eventually go to trial.
“A grown man cannot profile and pursue an unarmed child, shoot him in the heart and then claim ‘Stand Your Ground,'” he said in statement. “We believe that the killer’s motion will be denied.”
On Thursday, prosecutors released new evidence in the case, including Zimmerman’s college records. But they later recalled some of the documents after realizing they included an indistinct photo of Martin’s dead body, which is protected under Florida’s privacy laws.
Zimmerman is free on a $1 million bond and living in an undisclosed safe house near Sanford.
Additional reporting by Barbara Liston in Orlando and David Adams in Miami; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Philip Barbara