Yesterday, Shellie Zimmerman told a 911 operator that her husband George "was going to shoot" her and her father at their Florida home. "I'm really, really afraid," she added. And while the incident did not end in violence — nor has anyone been charged as the facts are still sorted out — Shellie's panicked 911 call poses an obvious question: would Florida law have offered Shellie the same defense had she used lethal force against her husband, as George used after he shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin?
This, to be clear, is a hypothetical situation: unlike Trayvon Martin, both Zimmermans are around to tell their version of events and we're learning quite a bit about what happened — including that Shellie Zimmerman's story has changed since her initial 911 call. Shellie and her father declined to press charges, and it turns out that police weren't able to find a gun on Zimmerman, or at the scene of the dispute. And we may never know who was telling the truth: George Zimmerman smashed an iPad allegedly used by Shellie Zimmerman to record the whole thing.
But what if Monday's incident had escalated? What if Shellie or her father got hold of a gun to defend themselves? If the situation had gone differently and Shellie had used a gun to shoot George — and George had not survived — one of the last records would have been Shellie's 911 call. George would not be around to give his side of the story. You can listen to the whole thing here, but this is the key point in which Shellie claimed George was armed and threatening her and her father:
Police: Is he inside now?
Shellie: No, he is in his car and he continually has his hand on his gun and he keeps saying step closer and he is just threatening all of us.
Police: Step closer and what?
Shellie: And he is doing to shoot us.
Shellie: He punched my dad on the nose. My dad has a mark on his face. I saw his glasses were on the floor. He accosted my father and then took my iPad out of my hand and smashed it and cut it with a pocket knife. There is a Lake Mary city worker across the street that I believe saw almost all of it. He is sitting in his truck right now. He just showed up here but my phone died so I had to call from my father's phone. I'm really, really afraid.
Police: We have units in the area where you are at so just stay on the line with me.
Shellie: I don't know what he is capable of. I'm just really scared.
For comparison, you can read the transcript of George Zimmerman's 911 call before he engaged Martin. He started by saying "This guy looks like he's up to no good, or he's on drugs or something," and later added "Yeah, now he's coming towards me. … He's got his hand in his waistband."
So, under the scenario Shellie initially described to police, would Florida law permit her to shoot and kill George Zimmerman? Elizabeth Megale, a Savannah College associate professor who's written about stand your ground and self-defense laws in the state for years, told The Atlantic Wire that Shellie would have a good chance of walking free. "There are a couple of things going for her," Megale said, "They were at the house, so there's actually, in Florida, an even broader protection in your home," if it was proven that Shellie and her father had residency. Shellie filed for divorce from George days ago, and the home is owned by her parents, one of whom was involved in the incident yesterday. If Shellie and her father were established as the residents of the home, they would have been "afforded a presumption of reasonable fear" against George Zimmerman, entitling them to defend themselves with lethal force. And if it's arguable that Zimmerman was entering the home unlawfully, police will start with that presumption, Megale added, which would make it incredibly difficult for Shellie or her dad to face charges.
On the other hand, it appears that George, and not Shellie, was living at the home they used to share at the time of the incident. She was stopping by to pick up some belongings. So even without the presumption afforded to her by the first part of the law, if it was established that George had a right to be there, Shellie or her father would still have "no duty to retreat" if "he or she reasonably believed it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another." If that sounds familiar, it's because it's the same self-defense provision invoked by George Zimmerman in his trial.
Because George and Martin were in the street, George had to provide evidence to the police in order to establish his reasonable fear from Martin — including the lacerations he sustained. Megale mentioned the case of John Tabutt for comparison, a 62-year-old Florida man who shot and killed his own fiancée in their home the night before their marriage. Tabutt said that the thought his fiance was an intruder. A grand jury declined to press manslaughter charges against him. "There are tons of cases," Megale said, "where there's no evidence of a break-in, but the shooter is awarded the presumption of reasonable fear anyway."
There's a contrasting comparison to make here, too: Marissa Alexander, also of Florida, was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison after she fired a warning shot towards her abusive husband Gray Rico in what she says was self defense. Rico, who survived, disputed his wife's version of events, and a judge denied her immunity under stand your ground. So maybe the real lesson here is that Florida's laws work best if there's no one else around to dispute the story.