The criminal aftermath is over for George Zimmerman. (Contrary to the drivel of some legal pundits, there is no legitimate basis whatsoever for federal criminal charges). Zimmerman has successfully negotiated the near impossible battle of both mortal combat and courtroom trial, the latter after undeserved and overwhelming demonization by the media.
First, let’s get the deserved moral outrage out of the way. My opinion is short, but not that simple: The prosecution was politically motivated pandering and a miscalculation of Constitutional proportions by a dopey governor and trial prosecutors who ignored facts and law. How do I know this? The chief of the prosecutor’s office gave a press conference shortly after the verdict which brazenly confirmed the foregoing … beyond any reasonable doubt. Guess what? Does not happen frequently, but it does happen. You carry a gun? Accept it. You should already realize even an innocent or noble misadventure can turn into one of “the gravest extreme.” (Read the book of similar title, by Massad Ayoob). Sadly, good public servants lost their jobs. Maybe not so noble elected officials should too.
I followed the case from start to finish, including watching the entire trial in real time. I read hundreds of articles and editorials, probably almost a dozen every other day, for a year. I previously wrote for MSW on the use of deadly force and “Stand Your Ground” (SYG) laws in a two-part post which included my paradigm CAN-MAY-SHOULD-MUST (here and here), and later provided a historical perspective of SYG before the Zimmerman trial began (here).
I write now to identify some “lessons learned” I noted from the Zimmerman case which I think will be of particular interest to MSW readers. I foreshadowed in other writings some of these before Zimmerman was called on to defend himself from death or great bodily harm on February 26, 2012. See my May/June 2011 article in American COP on civilian defensive shootings, and Massad Ayoob’s critique of my suggestions for LEOs involved in an OIS, in the June 2010 issue of Guns and Weapons For Law Enforcement. There are numerous sources, including entire books, where lawyers and laypersons have offered aftermath suggestions. Read and consider their suggestions too. Take and use what will work best for you.
In no particular order, for non-LEOs and/or LEOs, as may be applicable:
· Train, read, practice. Document it. No matter what any prosecutor says, you can never be too prepared, too smart, or too good.
· Have a plan, maybe two or three. Remember Messrs. Murphy and Finagle lurk 24/7.
· Assume in a fight you will be grounded and/or unable to use one of your hands, even if not seriously injured. Select and position gear (and reloads and backup) accordingly.
· If you go hands-on with a younger, stronger, and quicker opponent, you will last 20 seconds or less if you are not in control. If you are doing something and it isn’t working, quickly try something else.
· Shot placement trumps all, except the mind.
· Don’t speak unnecessarily to law enforcement and never without counsel. Say only enough to convince them you were in the right. (Maybe you will not be arrested). Law enforcement officers are often friendly, but law enforcement is not your friend. Investigators have taken an oath to do their job properly. Assume (and hope) they will.
· Do not speak in public or to the press, or do reconstructions for law enforcement without extra cautious consideration by you, counsel, and a second attorney specifically consulted for that purpose alone.
· Make no “social” media postings after the event. Be cautious in what you post before too.
· When armed, avoid unknown risk encounters with strangers, unless you are a LEO paid to do just that.
· Understand fully your state’s law of self-defense and use of force. Knowledge of the law will be imputed to you anyway. Know what constitutes deadly force and what (by legal and medical standards) are injuries which are life threatening or “grave,” “great,” or “serious” bodily harm (whatever the standard is in your state). If you do not understand the word “imminent,” look it up. Repeat often.
· Give due consideration to the SHOULD principle of my paradigm. Repeat.
· If you are involved in a shooting, make sure evidence and witnesses are identified promptly on scene and preserved. You are your own (and best) first responder.
· Go easy with profanity and epithets directed at people.
· If you speak after a shooting, speak only the truth. No guessing or making assumptions. If you do not remember or are unsure of something, say so, don’t embellish. Assume there was video and audio of your incident.
· The decision if and how to render aid to a malefactor is complex. Disturbing the forensic evidence, leaving the scene to retrieve a medical kit, and bodily fluids exchange are ill-advised. (The failure to render aid is not per se legally or morally damning as the Zimmerman prosecutors suggested). In any event, tend to yourself and innocent others first.
· Good lawyers, investigators, and experts do not grow on trees in bunches. Find and interview them, don’t trust those that may find you. Make sure your attorney will not speak to the press without you first approving the content. Get a separate attorney and consultant to represent you in that process.
· A good jury consultant is as important as your choice of attorney, investigator, and experts. Maybe more so.
· Secure membership in an organization that will help you with the legal aftermath. I like the Armed Citizens Legal Defense Network. (Do it now, before you have the need).
· Consider carrying less lethal options (impact, OC, TASER) and/or learning a defensive martial art, but don’t ignore your physical shortcomings and the likely inadequacy of less lethal against potentially lethal force.
· Stay in shape as best you can, in light of your personal circumstances and lifestyle.
· Make a checklist beforehand for a relative/friend to follow to help you immediately post incident. Give it to two people. If you are involved in a shooting, that is the call or text to make after 911.
· Never give consent for your cell phone, vehicle, or any other property to be searched by law enforcement, unless directed to by counsel after counsel has thoroughly reviewed what will be produced.
· If you are asked to go to a police station or sheriff’s office voluntarily for an interview/statement, do it days later, and bring counsel. Assume you may be charged at that time.
· There is nothing ignoble about invoking the Fifth Amendment privilege. It was written for the innocent as well as the guilty.
· Get the most reliable gun and best quality holster you can afford. They should be what you carry and shoot best, whether or not comfortable or convenient or what others use. Get seconds. Don’t rely on the advice of just one person for your selection. The final decision is of course yours alone. It is your life and freedom at stake. Be prepared to defend your choices under oath against both a ridiculous and educated cross examination.
· Remember that just because state law says you MAY stand your ground and use defensive force, doesn’t mean you SHOULD.
· Good appearance and clothing matter, so use common sense when armed in public.
· Phone conversation, especially to a 911 dispatcher, is distracting and may put you behind the curve tactically. Give your particulars, say what you need/want, answer questions briefly, obey commands (if appropriate and correct), and politely and promptly disengage.
· Unless you are a LEO, never pursue unless the rescue of innocent human life is absolutely necessary and the attendant circumstances are unmistakable.
· Employ verbal skills and command presence promptly at distance before CQB is forced upon you.
· Don’t expect to be considered a hero who saved an innocent life.
Those are some of my thoughts. You may do as well as George Zimmerman did whether you heed none, some, or all. In the end, it may come down to nothing more than what it likely was for him, a fearful and lucky shot in the dark. Nonetheless, Pasteur clearly got it right when he said “chance favors the prepared mind.”
Keep cool, be prepared, and consider the words of John Farnham: The best way to win a gunfight is by not being there.”