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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 re-nowned 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