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“Unreasonable Absolutist Death Penalties”: The ‘Stand Your Ground’ Mindset Is Flawed

Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law was not invoked by the defense at either the trial of George Zimmerman or, more recently, Michael Dunn. But the mindset was present in both cases, and raises some troubling questions about what constitutes self-defense.

In the Zimmerman case, the defendant was acquitted of shooting an unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin, in the chest, arguing that Martin had attacked him. Zimmerman was acquitted.

In the Dunn case, the defendant’s behavior was even more sketchy. He had pulled into a gas station, and – annoyed by what he called the “rap crap” emanating from another car there – asked the four teenagers inside to turn it down. Dunn said 17-year-old Jordan Davis then threatened him and had a shotgun, and Dunn then shot into the car. Prosecutors said there was no threat (there was, in fact, no gun in the boys’ SUV) and merely shot 10 bullets into the car because he didn’t like the loud music.

Davis was killed, and Dunn was convicted of attempted murder of the three surviving teens. The jury deadlocked over whether Dunn was guilty of fist-degree murder of Davis. From a practical standpoint, it may not matter as much – Zimmerman is free, and has spent the time doing such bizarrely inappropriate activities as posing for a photo with a gun manufacturer and getting into a fight with his girlfriend, while Dunn already faces up to 60 years in prison for the attempted murder convictions. But the mindset, that “threat” is in the eye of the shooter, endures.

Florida law says someone does not have an obligation to retreat if he or she “reasonably” believes his or her life is at stake, even if there is no actual threat. (The “Stand Your Ground” law was not specifically invoked at either trial, but the Florida self-defense statute, complete with that language, was read to the jury.) How far does one take that? State of mind is indeed a reasonable factor to consider. But putting the onus on the prosecution to prove that the defendant was not reasonably in fear for his or her life merely enables racism, xenophobia and any other kind of fear-based in bias.

Would a middle-aged white man be more “reasonable” in believing that four black teenagers were a threat, than if the ages and races were reversed? That’s not stated in the law, of course, but juries, which insert their own experiences and fears into their judgments, might think so. A woman has a far greater chance of being raped than any man of any race has of being murdered. Would that make it OK for a woman walking alone to attack or shoot a man walking past her – especially if the man were of the same race, since most rapes are intra-racial?

The problem with the standard of “reasonable” is that it isn’t reasonable at all. It puts law behind emotion and human bias.

In Virginia, current law allows farmers to shoot dogs which run after their chickens, and officers are actually required to kill a dog caught going after someone’s poultry. The state legislature recently cleared a bill that would soften that law, giving urban areas (where more people, it seems, are raising chickens) the right to ease such absolutist death penalties. If Virginia can do more to protect dogs, perhaps Florida could do more to protect people.

 

By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, February 19, 2014

February 22, 2014 Posted by | Gun Violence, Stand Your Ground Laws | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“It Was A Bad Bill”: A Step Forward, Florida To Hold Hearings On Stand Your Ground Law

Florida House of Representatives Speaker Will Weatherfold (R) announced on Friday that Florida legislators will hold hearings in the fall concerning the state’s “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law, which allows people to use deadly force in self-defense when they believe their life is at risk.

The announcement comes nearly a month after a not-guilty verdict was reached in the George Zimmerman trial. Two jurors stated that because of the Stand Your Ground law, they had no choice but to acquit Zimmerman, who fatally shot unarmed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin.

After the acquittal, Martin’s parents were joined by civic leaders, students, and political figures — including President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder — in urging Florida to review the law.

“Across Florida, representatives are receiving calls, letters, visits and emails from constituents with diverse opinions on ‘Stand Your Ground,’” Weatherfold said in his announcement.

He also asked: “Does the law keep the innocent safer? Is it being applied fairly? Are there ways we can make this law clearer and more understandable?”

These are the same questions being asked across Florida and the nation by those who fear that the law only protects a few privileged groups of people.

Critics argue that the law is not applied fairly across the board, and also allows anyone who deems another person threatening – even if only because of race or gender – to use lethal force against that person.

Race also plays a significant role in how a person is prosecuted in the context of the law.

A national Quinnipiac University poll released on Friday found that most voters support the Stand Your Ground laws, but that gender, race, and ideology divide Americans on the question of whether to retreat or use deadly force in self-defense. The poll also found that a majority of white voters and men support the laws, black voters generally oppose them, and women are more evenly divided.

Just a year ago, Representative Dennis Baxley (R-FL) told MSNBC that since the Stand Your Ground law went into effect in 2005, Florida has seen a drop in violent crime. In an interview with PBS Newshour, Baxley added that he thought the law “has saved thousands of people’s lives.”

Crime rates in Florida had been declining years before Stand Your Ground took effect, however, and there is no way to prove the law is the reason behind the decline.

Others contend that “justifiable” deaths have actually increased since Stand Your Ground was implemented. Economist Mouhcine Guettabi, an assistant professor at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, conducted a study by taking data from the 29 states that do not have “stand your ground” laws, and “weighted key factors like personal income, population density, percentages of white, black, Hispanic and Asian residents, and the crime rate.”

At the end of his study, Guettabi found that he could attribute 158 more deaths per year since the passage of Stand Your Ground in Florida; that number dropped to 144 when excluding the 14 accidental gun deaths.

Guettabi concluded that “crime rates did not go up or down after the law was added,” but “gun deaths were higher than they would have been without ‘stand your ground.’”

Former Florida Senator Les Miller has now come forward to say that he regrets voting in favor of the law and added: “It was a bad bill.”

In July, protesters met with Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) to discuss the law. Once the meeting was over, Scott told the protesters that he supported the bill and would not call a special session. Instead, Scott called for a day of prayer that following Sunday. Scott went on to urge protesters and critics of the law to call their local legislators and provide examples of why they believe the law has the potential to result in more violence.

Chairman of the Criminal Justice Subcommittee Matt Gaetz (R) responded to Weatherford’s announcement by firmly stating, “I don’t intend to move one damn comma on the ‘stand your ground’ law. I’m fully supportive of the law as it’s written.”

Additionally, Gaetz claimed “any aberrational circumstances that have resulted are due to errors at the trial court level.”

Senate President Don Gaetz (R), the chairman’s father, has also maintained his support for the law.

Still, protesters are optimistic about the hearings.

Philip Agnew, head of demonstration group Dream Defenders, said, “It’s a critical step. We’re excited about having an open debate.”

Weatherford has not yet set a formal date for the hearings or stated how long they are expected to last.

 

By: Elissa Gomez, The National Memo, August 5, 2013

August 6, 2013 Posted by | Stand Your Ground Laws | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Politics Around Dark Bodies”: The Whole System, Moral And Legal, Failed Trayvon Martin

In a way, the not-guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman for his killing of Trayvon Martin was more powerful than a guilty verdict could ever have been. It was the perfect wrenching coda to a story that illustrates just how utterly and completely our system of justice — both moral and legal — failed Martin and his family.

This is not to dispute the jury’s finding — one can intellectually rationalize the decision — as much as it is to howl at the moon, to yearn for a brighter reality for the politics around dark bodies, to raise a voice and say, this case is a rallying call, not a death dirge.

The system began to fail Martin long before that night.

The system failed him when Florida’s self-defense laws were written, allowing an aggressor to claim self-defense in the middle of an altercation — and to use deadly force in that defense — with no culpability for his role in the events that led to that point.

The system failed him because of the disproportionate force that he and the neighborhood watchman could legally bring to the altercation — Zimmerman could legally carry a concealed firearm, while Martin, who was only 17, could not.

The system failed him when the neighborhood watchman grafted on stereotypes the moment he saw him, ascribing motive and behavior and intent and criminal history to a boy who was just walking home.

The system failed him when the bullet ripped through his chest, and the man who shot him said he mounted him and stretched his arms out wide, preventing him from even clutching the spot that hurt.

The system failed him in those moments just after he was shot when he was surely aware that he was about to die, but before life’s light fully passed from his body — and no one came to comfort him or try to save him.

The system failed him when the slapdash Sanford police did a horrible job of collecting and preserving evidence.

The system failed him when those officers apparently didn’t even value his dead body enough to adequately canvass the complex to make sure that no one was missing a teen.

The system failed him when he was labeled a John Doe and his lifeless body spent the night alone and unclaimed.

The system failed him when the man who the police found standing over the body of a dead teenager, a man who admitted to shooting him and still had the weapon, was taken in for questioning and then allowed to walk out of the precinct without an arrest or even a charge, to go home after taking a life and take to his bed.

The system failed him when it took more than 40 days and an outpouring of national outrage to get an arrest.

The system failed him when a strangely homogenous jury — who may well have been Zimmerman’s peers but were certainly not the peers of the teenager, who was in effect being tried in absentia — was seated.

The system failed him when the prosecution put on a case for the Martin family that many court-watchers found wanting.

The system failed him when the discussion about bias became so reductive as to be either-or rather than about situational fluidity and the possibility of varying responses to varying levels of perceived threat.

The system failed him when everyone in the courtroom raised racial bias in roundabout ways, but almost never directly — for example, when the defense held up a picture of a shirtless Martin and told the jurors that this was the person Zimmerman encountered the night he shot him. But in fact it was not the way Zimmerman had seen Martin. Consciously or subconsciously, the defense played on an old racial trope: asking the all-female jury — mostly white — to fear the image of the glistening black buck, as Zimmerman had.

This case is not about an extraordinary death of an extraordinary person. Unfortunately, in America, people are lost to gun violence every day. Many of them look like Martin and have parents who presumably grieve for them. This case is about extraordinary inequality in the presumption of innocence and the application of justice: why was Martin deemed suspicious and why was his killer allowed to go home?

Sometimes people just need a focal point. Sometimes that focal point becomes a breaking point.

The idea of universal suspicion without individual evidence is what Americans find abhorrent and what black men in America must constantly fight. It is pervasive in policing policies — like stop-and-frisk, and in this case neighborhood watch — regardless of the collateral damage done to the majority of innocents. It’s like burning down a house to rid it of mice.

As a parent, particularly a parent of black teenage boys, I am left with the question, “Now, what do I tell my boys?”

We used to say not to run in public because that might be seen as suspicious, like they’d stolen something. But according to Zimmerman, Martin drew his suspicion at least in part because he was walking too slowly.

So what do I tell my boys now? At what precise pace should a black man walk to avoid suspicion?

And can they ever stop walking away, or running away, and simply stand their ground? Can they become righteously indignant without being fatally wounded?

Is there anyplace safe enough, or any cargo innocent enough, for a black man in this country? Martin was where he was supposed to be — in a gated community — carrying candy and a canned drink.

The whole system failed Martin. What prevents it from failing my children, or yours?

I feel that I must tell my boys that, but I can’t. It’s stuck in my throat. It’s an impossibly heartbreaking conversation to have. So, I sit and watch in silence, and occasionally mouth the word, “breathe,” because I keep forgetting to.

 

By: Charles M. Blow, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, July 15, 2013

July 17, 2013 Posted by | Zimmerman Trial | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“The Logic Of Profiling?”: What The Zimmerman Trial Was All About

A three-week long legal spectacle involving life-size human cutouts, a block of concrete, a forensic dummy, and a poorly considered knock-knock joke can be distilled down to two statements from the trial’s closing arguments: the prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda telling the jury that Trayvon Martin was dead because Zimmerman had profiled him as a criminal, and Mark O’Mara, one of George Zimmerman’s defense attorneys, saying that Trayvon Martin, unfortunately, fit the description of people arrested for burglaries in the retreat at Twin Lakes. The State of Florida vs. George Zimmerman is about many things: what constitutes self-defense, the echoing consequences of an increasingly armed public, the enduring and toxic way that race stains the most basic interactions. But, most fundamentally, it’s about what we’ve decided to do with our fear.

Before the trial began, Judge Deborah Nelson forbid use of the term “racial profiling” in the courtroom. At first, it seemed that the order would insure that throughout the trial race would be addressed the same way it was outside her courtroom—that is, by talking around it. Instead, it meant that by the closing arguments it was easier to recognize that race is just part of the problem. The logic of profiling itself is on trial.

Without a racial element the trial would never have happened. Not just because George Zimmerman, like so many others, probably wouldn’t have registered a white teen-ager as a criminal threat but also because a brew of vicarious grief, common experience, and the history of race in this country is what drove the crowds to don hoodies and gather around the country. It’s not simply that if President Obama had a son he’d look like Trayvon—it’s that millions of us have sons, brothers, and cousins who already do.

By degrees, we’ve accepted profiling as a central aspect of American life. Last month, I listened to Heather MacDonald, of the Manhattan Institute, argue that, though the N.Y.P.D.’s stop-and-frisk policy may be inconvenient for the many law-abiding black and Latino men it targets, it is ultimately necessary to make business owners feel safe. Surveillance has become a fact of life for unknown numbers of Muslims in this country. Our recent debates about the N.S.A. and the hazily expanding parameters of its surveillance programs center around this same question of profiling. If the majority of the public supports electronic eavesdropping, it’s because of the assumption that profiling will exclude them from suspicion. For anyone who’s known what it means to “fit the description,” the calculation is not nearly so simple.

There’s bad mathematics at the heart of this—a conflation of correlations and causations, gut instincts codified as public policy. To the extent that race factors into this equation, it’s in the way we selectively absolve, the way that no sum of actions by certain people quite reaches the bar of suspicion, the way that it becomes deceptively easy to surrender the civil liberties of others.

None of this could come up in closing arguments, yet it also seems certain that without understanding this idea we’ll reënact this drama at some future date under slightly different circumstances, but with a common pool of suspicions still present beneath the surface.

Throughout the sixteen-month-long saga that has led to a jury in Sanford, Florida deliberating the fate of George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, repeatedly said that this case was not about race. That’s partly true. But it’s also true that we live in an era where we understand security as the yield of broadening suspicions, and that at our safest, almost all of us are Trayvon Martin to someone else.

By: Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker, July 12, 2013

July 13, 2013 Posted by | Zimmerman Trial | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Making Us Less Safe”: Stand Your Ground Laws A Shaky Basis For Justice

The Trayvon Martin murder case will boil down to one claim known by mothers everywhere.

“He started it!”

Every parent with more than one child has heard that cry. When their little one points his or her finger accusingly at a sibling, claiming to have been provoked into the tussle or name-calling, a wise parent responds with, “Well, why did you react?”

George Zimmerman will be asked if he instigated the altercation that led to him shooting to death the unarmed Trayvon, for which Zimmerman now faces the charge of second-degree murder.

The basis of Zimmerman’s defense is that, fearing for his life, he believed he was justified to shoot and kill.

The jury, being chosen now, will decide.

Zimmerman waived his right for a hearing to exculpate himself under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, although his lawyer has suggested that he may attempt to invoke the law if he is found guilty in his impending trial.

These laws need to be better understood for their implications for a civil society. Since Florida became the first state to pass the so-called Stand Your Ground law in 2005, about 30 other states have followed suit with some form of these laws.

Most states have the Castle Doctrine, which allows people to use deadly force, without the expectation to retreat, when threatened in their own home.

What the Stand Your Ground laws do is broaden the right to kill without retreating, even when it is possible, to other places, such as a workplace or a car.

Prior to the spread of these new laws, people were expected to back down, to retreat, if possible. Shoot First, Stand Your Ground, Make My Day laws can make it legal to refuse to walk away.

More research is needed into the effects of these laws. However, the evidence available now should trouble anyone who thinks laws should make society safer, rather than promoting violence.

One point is made repeatedly by David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center: “Firearms are used far more often to frighten and intimidate than they are used in self-defense.”

People are confused about what constitutes self-defense. What many people term self-defense is really just the last act in an argument gone out of control, a situation that escalates until one or both parties reach for a gun.

In one study, verbatim accounts of people who claimed self-defense were sent to criminal court judges for review. The majority of time, the judges felt the shootings, as described by the shooter, were not legal uses of self defense. Most often, the cases were simply arguments that ended violently when one person used a gun. Many were avoidable.

The Harvard Center has ripped apart other studies that overestimate the number of instances in which people have justifiably used a gun in self-defense. Given a chance to paint themselves a victim/hero, shooters often do, no matter what the facts of their cases were. So when researches try to estimate what proportion of shootings are cases of self-defense, it’s problematic to say the least to base their figures on the shooters’ self-reported motives.

Hemenway has also noted that in interviews, about half of convicted felons who used a gun in their crimes claim they did so in self-defense.

Many of these instances probably aren’t all that different from the type of the knuckleheaded justifications for murder that we regularly hear on the evening news: the endless stories of one teenager claiming someone “disrespected” them with a sneer, an ugly comment. So they just had to shoot the person dead.

People readily recognize the ludicrous nature of the claim that violence was necessary, that someone “had it coming to them.” Yet Stand Your Ground laws by definition turn this lack of self-control and inability to manage disagreement into a legal right to use lethal force. It’s sanctioned murder.

Depending on how one of these laws is crafted, it can even take away the ability of police to file charges, and prosecutors can face higher burdens of proof.

The question that needs to be answered is if the proliferation of Stand Your Ground laws are influencing public behavior to the point of making us less safe.

If he were alive to answer, it would be good to get Trayvon Martin’s opinion.

 

By: Mary Sanchez, The National Memo, June 17, 2013

June 21, 2013 Posted by | Gun Violence | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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