It’s possible that a judge, not a jury, will decide the fate of George Zimmerman, accused of killing Trayvon Martin, 17, in Florida, reports the Orlando Sentinel. Zimmerman says he fired in self-defense, and many expect his lawyers will ask for an immunity hearing under the controversial “stand your ground” law. Often described as a “minitrial” in which the burden of proof is on the defense and the judge serves as jury, such hearings are unlike other criminal-justice proceedings.
The lawyers’ roles are reversed, the burden of proof is low, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. “If the judge dismisses the case, it’s game over,” says Eric Schwartzreich, a Ft. Lauderdale attorney who has represented several “stand your ground” defendants under the 2005 law. A task force created by Gov. Rick Scott to re-examine “stand your ground” will hold its first public meeting this week. When a defense lawyer files a motion for “stand your ground” immunity, a hearing is held that resembles a trial: Witnesses are called and cross-examined, evidence is introduced, lawyers make arguments and a ruling is made. “You basically have a trial before the trial,” Jacksonville attorney Kevin Cobbin said. “Some of these things can actually be very much like trials, just without the jury.”