Panel Discussion Sponsored by Black Law Students Association Looks at Prosecutorial Discretion
Web Editor - Published: April 12, 2012

“The outrage comes from the fact that someone took the matter into his own two hands and killed a young man for no good reason,” said attorney Leon Goodman in addressing the shooting of Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida.

Goodman, who is a former Philadelphia assistant district attorney and currently the works in the investigations division to the Chief Counsel Office of Audit and Compliance at the Philadelphia Housing Authority, made the remarks at a panel discussion titled “Trayvon Martin: Does Public Outcry Impact Prosecutorial Discretion?” held on Monday, April 9th in the Ruby R. Vale Moot Courtroom on Widener Law’s Delaware campus. The Black Law Students Association put together the event to look at legal questions arising in the wake of the shooting death of Martin.

The event opened with an introduction from BLSA President Roderick Thompson and the viewing of a short Nightline video about Trayvon Martin’s shooting. Associate Professor Justin Holbrook, who served as moderator, then offered an overview of some of the issues the panel would cover before turning the program over to Associate Professor Geoff Moulton, who provided a brief overview on self-defense doctrine.

Professor Holbrook then asked members of the audience to share their perception of the Trayvon Martin shooting based on media reports. Following that, Dean Linda L. Ammons offered a few brief welcoming remarks before Roderick Thompson introduced the distinguished panelists; Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson, Former Philadelphia assistant district attorney Leon Goodman, Philadelphia attorney Richard Harris, Charles Gibbs '10 of Bowman & Partners LLP, and Reverend Blane Newberry. Renee Hughes, a former Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judge and current chief executive officer at the American Red Cross, was originally scheduled to attend but was unable to attend.

The panelists took turns answering questions posed by Professor Holbrook on a range of topics including whether or not there were racial underpinnings to the incident, whether race was an issue in the way police treated the investigation, and how responsive the police or prosecution should be to public outcry.

Addressing the investigation, Sylvester Johnson said, “How they could go 48 hours without identifying the victim is amazing. There was a cell phone right there. It just doesn’t make sense.”

“The decision to prosecute cannot be done due to public pressure,” observed Goodman, who contended that the decision must come from independent and impartial review.

Asked about whether Florida’s “stand your ground” law is justifiable, the panel as a whole seemed to feel that an overemphasis on that particular law was misguided, with Goodman noting that the “stand your ground” law did not seem to apply given what was known about the incident.

“You cannot avail yourself of self-defense when you are the aggressor,” stated Harris, who indicated that George Zimmerman’s pursuit of Trayvon Martin called into question whether Zimmerman could even make a legitimate self-defense claim.