The recent acquittal of neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old unarmed Trayvon Martin has led to intense scrutiny of Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law and similar “no retreat” self-defense laws and their impact on people of color.
“I think the Trayvon Martin case highlighted the racial inequalities that exist in American society,” said Brendan Fischer, general counsel of the Center for Media and Democracy. “It is a symbol of how the American justice system devalues the lives of people of color. [And], ‘Stand Your Ground’ has embedded a lot of these injustices into the system. Statistics have shown its application has been anything but equitable.”
Supported by the National Rifle Association, “Stand Your Ground” was passed by the Florida legislature in 2005. The measure turned age-old self-defense principle on its head by allowing persons to use deadly force to defend themselves, without first trying to retreat, if they have what they consider a reasonable belief that they face a threat.
The law’s template was then adopted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonprofit organization made up of corporations, foundations and legislators that advance federalist and conservative public policies, authorities said. Since Florida passed the law, similar measures have been introduced in one form or another in about 30 states, usually those with state legislatures dominated by Republicans.
“That law gives law-and-order activists, right-wingers and vigilantes an arguable basis for defense and opens up a pathway for unjust dispositions of justice because it allows civilians to shoot first and make certain determinations later,” said Dwight Pettit, 67, a renowned Black attorney in Baltimore.
Pettit drew comparisons to police-involved shootings of African Americans when the officers make claims such as “I was in fear for my life,” or “I thought he was reaching for his gun,” and are exonerated. He discusses the phenomenon in his soon-to-be-released book Under Color of Law.
“Blacks don’t fare well with these laws at all,” Pettit said. “It’s another lessening of protection for African Americans.”
An analysis conducted by the Tampa Bay Times last year showed that defendants in Florida who employ the “Stand Your Ground” defense are more successful when the victim is Black. In its examination of 200 applicable cases, the Times found that 73 percent of those who killed a Black person were acquitted, compared to 59 percent of those who killed a White.
Similarly, an analysis of Supplemental Homicide Reports (SHR) submitted by local law enforcement to the FBI between 2005 and 2010 demonstrates that in cases with a Black shooter and a White victim, the rate of justifiable homicide rulings is about 1 percent. However, if the shooter is White and the victim is Black, it is ruled justified in 9.5 percent of cases in non-Stand Your Ground states. In Stand Your Ground states, the rate is even higher—almost 17 percent, according to John Roman of the Urban Institute.
The trends could partly explain Zimmerman’s verdict, some legal experts said. While his defense team did not invoke the law, Circuit Court Judge Debra Nelson introduced the principle in her instructions to the jury.
“If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony,” she said in her instructions to the jury of one Hispanic and five White women.
To police officers and prosecutors in Sanford, Fla.—who had initially decided not to charge Zimmerman—and to jurors in the case, Zimmerman’s “fear” of Trayvon Martin, a hoodie-wearing Black teenager, likely appeared to be justified, Fischer said.
“If you have a case like George Zimmerman, who is part White, alleging that a young Black male is a threat to him, a lot of times law enforcement would agree that such as person did [constitute] a threat because of the biases and presumptions about Black males, in particular, which exist in society,” he said.
Conversely, Stand Your Ground laws are less accommodating of Black defendants. Such was the case of successful African-American businessman John McNeil who was found guilty of aggravated assault and felony murder in Georgia in 2006 in connection with the fatal shooting of White contractor Brian Epp. McNeil said Epp threatened him and his son during a hostile encounter after going onto McNeil’s property to confront him. He was released earlier this year on time served.
Similarly, in July 2012, Marissa Alexander, 31, the mother of three, was given a 20-year mandatory sentence for an aggravated assault conviction for firing a warning shot into the air in the garage of her home at her abusive husband. Alexander said the man was moving toward her as she attempted to retreat from him when she fired the shot. He was not injured.
Florida Sen. Gary Siplin (D) said the Alexander case was his motivation to attempt to get the Stand Your Ground law overturned. He was unsuccessful, however, because “there are more Democrats in Florida, but more Republicans [are] in charge and they don’t want to change the law,” he told the AFRO.
Working toward a repeal of the laws would be a positive outcome or response to the verdict in the George Zimmerman case, Fischer said.
“People have to vote and elect legislators that would support more just laws that protect the rights of all people instead of just a few,” he said.
In the meantime, many officials are vowing to examine the laws and work toward their repeal, if necessary.
“It’s time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a speech to the NAACP on July 16. “By allowing, and perhaps encouraging, violent situations to escalate in public, such laws undermine public safety.”
The Trayvon Martin case “opened up a nationwide inquiry into the appropriateness and efficacy of Stand Your Ground laws,” said Commissioner Michael Yaki, of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, who initiated the body’s investigation into racial bias in the application of such laws. He said the commission is committed to investigating the laws.
“To honor Trayvon and his family, we will continue this inquiry with resolve and renewed purpose,” Yaki said.
(Photo: Tampa, Fla. Attorney Kamilah Perry points out unfairness of Florida laws. Courtesy of Florida Courier.)