Delaware’s Castle Doctrine better than Florida’s Stand Your Ground law

July 16, 2013

On Aug. 24, thousands will gather to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which culminated on the National Mall with the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

(The Lower Sussex NAACP is sponsoring a bus to the march. If you are interested in going on the trip, send your name and email address to

The march can’t help being bittersweet. How extraordinary that on the 50th anniversary of King’s speech we have a black man as president.

How sad that, despite progress, our country remains as divided as ever.

The most recent divisive issue, of course, is George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Some people are calling on the federal government to press civil charges against Zimmerman. Defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz is calling for a federal investigation of the case’s prosecutor, Angela Corey.

He’s saying that if anyone’s civil rights were violated, it was Zimmerman’s.

At first blush, it sounds outlandish that the man who shot and killed a teenager and then was acquitted of all charges is the victim of civil rights violations. But Dershowitz has a point.

The prosecutor, he said, withheld photographs of a bleeding Zimmerman that would have served as exculpatory evidence on a second-degree murder charge.

(Personally, I think the second-degree murder charge was a stretch; manslaughter would have been fairer, though not necessarily more likely to have resulted in a conviction.)

That’s the problem. Florida’s Stand Your Ground law is on Zimmerman’s side, and the law needs to be changed. Unfortunately, I fear the opposite, that Zimmerman’s acquittal will be seen as a vindication of a terrible law that effectively gives people like Zimmerman a license to kill. Let’s hope Delaware doesn’t go down that road.

Think about it. Zimmerman initiated a confrontation. He had no reason to do so. Neither he nor his property was in any danger.

Nor was Martin doing anything wrong.

He was walking through the neighborhood, suspicious only because of his youth and, yes, likely his race.

Zimmerman was even warned by a police dispatcher not to confront Martin.

He chose to do so, probably because the gun gave him the courage. The confrontation escalated into an altercation - not exactly a surprise - and when Zimmerman found himself on the losing end of the fight, he pulled his gun and killed Martin.

A completely and wholly preventable tragedy.

George Zimmerman has a right to own a gun. He has a right to use that gun to protect his home and family.

And, naturally, he has a right to walk around his neighborhood and alert police about people he thinks might be criminals.

The problem is with Zimmerman - and civilians in general - carrying a gun while on a Neighborhood Watch.

At that point, with Stand Your Ground laws, you effectively have amateur, untrained police officers unbound by any rules about using deadly force.

And often they’re not even held accountable. Zimmerman was only arrested 44 days later, because of public pressure. In the beginning, there wasn’t even much of an investigation. Zimmerman said he felt threatened, so he fired his weapon. That was almost the end of the story. In light of Zimmerman’s acquittal, it’s hard to imagine Florida police even trying to bring charges in similar cases, unless the law is changed.

Compare that to what happens when a police officer fires his weapon, at least in Delaware. Even in the most seemingly open-and-shut case there is an investigation, usually lengthy. The public often expresses great concern about police officers’ use of deadly force, even outrage.

That’s how it should be, because the consequences are so severe.

Would Zimmerman have been arrested if the shooting had occurred in Delaware? Probably.

In Delaware, people have a right to defend themselves with deadly force, but there are limitations:

According to the Delaware Criminal Code, a person is not justified answering with deadly force if he is the one “who provoked the use of force against the defendant in the same encounter.”

Also, under Delaware law, a person is not justified if he “knows that the necessity of using deadly force can be avoided with complete safety by retreating” or by “surrendering possession of a thing” to another person.

I think Zimmerman would have failed both those tests. Whether he intended to or not, he provoked the fight. And he could have retreated before trouble started.

Delaware follows what is sometimes called the Castle Doctrine, that a man’s home is his castle and he (or she) has a right to defend it.

People are not required “to retreat in or from” their dwelling or place of work before using deadly force.

Delaware law allows people to protect themselves, but not to play police officer. That’s how it should be.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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