After taunting people who “people who are going crazy with this verdict”, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters told a radio host that, had George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin in Hamilton County, he would not have prosecuted the case.

BILL CUNNINGHAM: If the same set of facts happened in Hamilton County, there would be no prosecution?

DETERS: No, if he believed he was in fear of losing his life or serious physical harm, and shot as he’s being pummeled, I can’t imagine it.

I’m no lawyer, granted, but Ohio has different laws than Florida does.

The key in this case seems to have been the presumption of self-defense1 in Florida law. If a defendant in Florida claims self-defense, the prosecution must prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he didn’t believe that he was in danger of great bodily harm. That’s basically impossible.

Ohio, Deters will be surprised to learn, has a completely different set of self-defense statutes. Self-defense is an affirmative defense2, meaning that the defendant must prove that he was acting in self-defense.  The decision in State v. Thomas (1997) clarifies how this works in Ohio:

In Ohio, the affirmative defense of self-defense has three elements: (1) the defendant was not at fault in creating the violent situation, (2) the defendant had a bona fide belief that she was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that her only means of escape was the use of force, and (3) that the defendant did not violate any duty to retreat or avoid the danger.

Note: The duty to retreat is not applicable only in one’s home or business.

Obviously the trial would have gone very differently, but in Ohio a killer needs to prove that 1) he wasn’t afraid when he got out of his car, 2) he became afraid during a fight that he in no way provoked, and 3) he tried to flee before shooting. None of that needs to be proven in Florida (which is deeply, deeply screwed up).

If Deters doesn’t believe me, here’s a 2012 Canton Repository article about how guns-everywhere advocates think Ohio’s self-defense laws need to be replaced because George Zimmerman couldn’t get away with it in Ohio.

Either Joe Deters doesn’t know how Ohio’s self-defense laws work, or he wants to make it clear that he doesn’t value African-American lives. That cuts to the quick of why his tossed-off comment upsets me so much.

My fear (which Deters taunts, natch) is that we haven’t actually made any progress. In the American South, as was the case in 1955, local law enforcement wasn’t interested in investigating and prosecuting the killing of a black teenager who was minding his own business. With no Voting Rights Act, massive vote suppression is the best strategy for the GOP. The biggest gains of the civil rights movement are in jeopardy.

My fear is that local governments are again untrustworthy to protect the interests of minorities. I’m afraid that national victories will be nullified because state and local Republicans are more concerned with shoring up the support of racists than they are with following the law.

Joe Deters, Hamilton County’s longest-serving prosecutor, seems to have confirmed those fears.

For Cincinnatians, there’s a vigil on Saturday at noon at the Federal Building.



1 Yes, I’m citing The Onion. They nailed it. If you want it less snarky, here’s Ta Nahesi Coates.

The short version is that Florida’s laws are so screwed up that, as long as the shooting victim is dead, it’s basically inconceivable that anybody be convicted of murder.

2 I’ll address the “Castle Doctrine” here. Named after Frank Castle (not really… but yeah, really), this Ohio law grants presumption to a person who claims self-defense in their car or home. Since Zimmerman was in neither, it doesn’t really have any bearing.

It’s worth mentioning, though, that Deters has apparently missed the hubbub over the Castle Doctrine. If Ohio presumed self-defense, then the Castle Doctrine would be redundant.