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What others say: Examine the facts

Published: Wednesday, March 28 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Trayvon Martin's parents, father, Tracy Martin, left, and mother Sybrina Fulton, attend a House Judiciary Committee briefing on racial profiling and hate crimes, Tuesday, March 27, 2012, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Associated Press

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The following editorial appeared recently in the Chicago Tribune:

Any time an unarmed teenager is fatally shot, it may or may not be a crime, but it is unquestionably a tragedy. The killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., near Orlando, has stirred widespread outrage because he was unarmed when he was accosted by a neighborhood watch volunteer in the gated community where Martin was visiting his father. The alleged shooter, George Zimmerman, was not arrested or charged.

Now the Feb. 26 incident has become a national controversy, with critics accusing police of grossly mishandling the case. Protests have been held in Sanford, Washington and New York. On Friday, President Barack Obama voiced sympathy for Martin's parents and said it is "imperative that we investigate every aspect of this."

Multiple investigations are under way. The Justice Department and FBI are looking into whether the youngster's civil rights were violated. The governor of Florida has appointed a prosecutor to take over a grand jury probe after the state attorney stepped aside.

The police may well have jumped to the conclusion that Zimmerman had good reason to shoot Martin. But the rest of us should not jump to the opposite conclusion on the basis of the sparse information available so far. What the case needs more than anything is a thorough and dispassionate effort to uncover and examine all the facts that can be known.

Much of what is known does not cast a flattering light on Zimmerman, a 28-year-old Hispanic. He was carrying a gun (legally), which neighborhood watch volunteers are not supposed to do, and he pursued Martin even after a police dispatcher told him to stop. If he had used any kind of common sense, the killing wouldn't have happened.

But that's not the whole of the story. Three basic questions need to be answered. One is what happened between the time that Zimmerman confronted Martin and the time that police arrived to find Martin dead and Zimmerman bleeding from his head and nose. Investigators need to assess Zimmerman's account critically in light of the information provided by those who heard or saw parts of the encounter.

A second issue is why police elected not to arrest or charge Zimmerman despite the death he evidently caused. The full statement he gave would shed a great deal of light on that decision. The public also needs to know who else was interviewed about the encounter. Martin's girlfriend, who says she was on the phone with him as it began, reportedly was not contacted by police.

Finally, the role of the Florida "Stand Your Ground" law warrants scrutiny. Passed in 2005, the law says that someone with a reasonable fear of being killed or seriously hurt may use lethal force in self-protection — dropping a previous obligation to retreat if possible. Critics say the change encourages deadly violence by allowing perpetrators to hide behind a self-defense claim.

Maybe so. The Tampa Bay Times reports that since the law passed, the annual number of killings classified as justifiable homicides has tripled.

It may be that the law is too permissive, or it may be that it has been sloppily interpreted by police. In any case, it seems wildly inapplicable to a situation where an armed man pursues an unarmed one who has committed no crime, like this one. Florida Gov. Rick Scott was wise to move to name a task force to assess the law.

When these inquiries are done, we'll all have a much better sense of whether Zimmerman warrants prosecution, and whether the Stand Your Ground law ought to be scrapped.

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