What Makes People Tick? The Trayvon Martin Case

The highly publicized Trayvon Martin case in Florida has attracted immense media attention, leading to highly polarized opinions as to who, George Zimmerman or Trayvon Martin, was the aggressor and who was the victim. But what if each individual was, simultaneously, both the aggressor and the victim?

This paradox is possible when one considers the question lurking below the surface: “what makes people tick?” That is, what subconscious processes drive human behavior, such as the primitive “fight response” that triggered the impulse to kill? And how do these insights into human behavior apply to Florida’s stand-your-ground law?

As George Zimmerman patrolled his neighborhood on the evening of February 26, 2012, he was scanning the area for potential burglars. For every neuron, or nerve fiber, carrying sensory information (sight, sound, smell) to George’s higher brain regions, there were ten nerve fibers carrying information downward. What information was being carried downward to George’s senses that night?

That top-down flow of information is generated by our experiences in life. Over time, these experiences create mental frameworks to filter and interpret sensory information. Applying a pre-existing mental model gives us the predictive ability to anticipate events. This predictive ability is what allows a baseball player to hit a fastball that, if attempted consciously, would have already crossed home plate before he could formulate the intention to swing. In the primitive jungle mentality, which lurks inside all of us, the frameworks protect us from physical threats.

Research shows that if our mental model expects to see something, it is more likely to interpret the sensory data to fit that model. When we are looking for a cat, we tend to see cats. When we are looking for cat burglars, we tend to see burglars.

Our mind is not a camera that captures the world as it really is. In fact, our view of the world is more like our own personal Monet impressionist painting. As we go through life, we interpret the world around us. To understand what makes George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin tick, you need to consider what events shaped the frameworks they used to interpret events that fateful night. We don’t know all the facts, but we know enough to formulate a tentative conclusion.

George is a protector of his neighborhood, a watch captain, who volunteers his time to help keep his neighbors safe from outside threats. There was evidence that this neighborhood had, in fact, been burglarized recently, so George’s on-guard stance was factually justified. He also lawfully held a concealed handgun permit and was generally considered a good guy by his neighbors.

Trayvon was a 17-year-old boy, who was also a good guy according to news reports. One can safely assume that his parents had lectured him to come home straight from school, and to avoid interaction with strangers. All parents drill that into our kids’ heads: watch out for strangers! So as Trayvon came home that night, he was applying that mental model to “beware of strangers”.

George interpreted Trayvon as the threat, while Trayvon interpreted George as the threat. Each was applying a reasonable mental framework to the same objective facts. Each was interpreting those same objective events as a threat to himself. In fact, they were both misinterpreting the facts, yet it was a reasonable mistake that they – or any of us – could easily make.

Florida’s stand-your-ground statute replaces the traditional rule that a potential victim has a “duty to retreat” when confronted by a threat.  Under Florida Statutes Section 776.012:

“[A] person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if: (1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony; or (2) [the situation involves home protection].” (emphasis added).

If a person acts in self-defense under Section 776.012, they are immune under Section 776.032 from both criminal prosecution and civil action in Florida. This immunity is more than a defense at trial: it is a outright bar to bringing charges.

What’s interesting about the Florida statute is that it doesn’t seem to matter who initiated physical contact. It allows one to shoot in self-defense if reasonably necessary to prevent imminent commission of a forcible felony. This appears to permit pre-emptive strikes, to err on the side of shooting first.

So under Florida law, we evidently do not need to determine who hit first. This means George would be immune from prosecution for shooting Trayvon if the investigation established that George reasonably believed that deadly force was necessary to prevent imminent commission of a forcible felony by Trayvon. This statute, and George’s subjective mental framework, explains why the prosecution struggled for so long over the decision to bring charges.

But wait a minute! Couldn’t Trayvon also reasonably have believed that George was about to attack Trayvon? Well, yes. And under Florida law, it appears that Trayvon would be entitled to launch a pre-emptive strike against George if he reasonably concluded that George was about to commit an imminent attack on him. On these same facts, Trayvon could have killed George and been immune from prosecution. Or, had they both been armed, they could have both shot and simultaneously killed each other, in lawful self-defense. George may be truthful that Trayvon attacked him first. But Trayvon may have been justified in doing so under Florida law.

The Florida statute creates a paradox where lethal force against one another is permissible, and both parties are legally right and yet both are factually wrong. The paradox of this case and the Florida statute arises from the subjective nature of human behavior and the mental frameworks that drive that behavior. Each person could have legally shot first in circumstances where there was no actual threat.

Florida’s stand-your-ground law seems to mean shoot first and ask questions later. Does this legal policy help protect the public or does it place us at greater risk? Proponents claim that Florida’s violent crime rate has decreased by 11 percent since this law was passed in 2005. Detractors raise concerns that the law places minorities at greater risk because of negative stereotyping. So the law reduces crime overall, but at the cost of more innocent black guys getting shot (though in fairness to George, there was nothing to indicate he is a racist, although one must wonder whether some racial profiling nevertheless may occur deep within us).

Our primitive survival instinct — the “fight or flight” response — is driven by impulses deep within our amygdala, an area of the brain the regulates aggression. When that primitive response center is triggered, it can produce the impulse to kill in perceived self-defense. It can also result in a mistaken overreaction with tragic consequences in specific cases.

Trayvon’s supporters were rightly appalled that an innocent young man could be killed while walking home from school by a neighborhood watchman packing a gun. George’s supporters are likewise appalled that George could be prosecuted for defending himself against a perceived threat who apparently attacked George physically. George claims Trayvon attacked him. This may be true, but it would have been a lawful pre-emptive attack by Trayvon to protect himself from a perceived “imminent forcible felony” by George.

Both camps are right. Both camps are wrong. It is a paradox. It is explained by the interplay between the mind’s ability to interpret the world through subjective mental frameworks, the primitive fight-response and the structure of Florida’s stand-your-ground law. If we understand what makes people tick, we can perhaps avoid endless arguments in which both sides are right and yet both sides are wrong.

We can then start looking at remedial measures to reduce such tragic cases in the future. For example, neighborhood watchmen might consider wearing “authority clothing,” something as simple as a patrolman’s belt (like school bus patrols wear). Had Trayvon seen George wearing indicia of authority, he would not likely have perceived George as a threat, but instead as the neighborhood protector that George truly was. George might also have been required to follow any police instructions (e.g., don’t approach the suspect) to have the benefit of statutory protection.

Florida might also consider tightening its statute by removing language that permits a pre-emptive strike based on a mere threat of forcible felony. Getting punched in the nose is a lot different than being attacked with a knife. Where the perceived perpetrator does not exhibit lethal force, the law might not give us such a free pass to err on the side of pulling the trigger.

John Newman, Esq./C.Ht. is a practicing Attorney and a Certified Hypnotherapist near Washington, D.C. His Continuing Legal Education (CLE) seminar for lawyers explores “What Makes People Tick? A Lawyer’s Guide.” For a free download of the 93-page seminar booklet visit http://www.hyp-nova.com/mcle

John Newman, Esq./C.Ht. is a practicing Attorney and a Certified Hypnotherapist. His Continuing Legal Education (CLE) seminar for lawyers explores “What Makes People Tick? A Lawyer’s Guide.” For a free download of the 93-page seminar booklet visit http://www.hyp-nova.com/mcle

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