A lot of people, especially in mainstream media, have been talking about the “stand your ground” law. Darren Hutchinson wrote an excellent post about how “stand your ground” has nothing to do with the Trayvon Martin case. Definitely read the whole thing, but the short of it is this.
In some states, self-defense is not available if the defendant had the ability to “retreat” from the harm. In other words, if the defendant could have escaped the danger without using violence, then the use of force is not justifiable. These states impose a duty to retreat in order to discourage the unnecessary use of force.
In 2005, Florida amended its law to remove the duty to retreat provision. So long as the person claiming self-defense had a legal right to be in a particular location, that individual can stand his or her ground and remain there without any duty to retreat from the threat
So why are people talking about lobbying to reinstate the duty to retreat in the context of this case? Doesn’t that imply that the shooter was possibly acting in self defense? An armed man followed an unarmed kid under the pretext of there having been some robberies in the neighborhood? Even if you believe the kid might possibly (eyebrow raised) have punched the shooter who was creepily following him, that just boggles the mind.
Did Martin have a TV in his hoodie pocket? What if he had stolen the world’s tiniest TV? Is theft now a capital offense? Zimmerman didn’t even see the kid do anything, much less have reason to fear for his life. Is every bar brawl where somebody punches somebody now a self defense claim for murder? Not even the people behind the law change think it applies in this case, cynical as their statements may be.
Let me repeat. ZIMMERMAN WAS FOLLOWING HIM!!! I’m sorry to yell, but really.
This case isn’t just tragic and infuriating, it is absurd. And we should be focusing on the absurdity that any kind of self defense claim was accepted by the police. Seems to me that talking about the “stand your ground” provision as though it applies is almost helping the defense.
We should be focusing on the murder and on the police and prosecutors who let someone walk away from it. Why are so few people discussing all the citizens of Sanford that have come forward about how local police have handled their cases? Why aren’t we discussing a pattern of Sanford police letting people connected with the police department get away with murder? Why is there so little discussion about how Zimmerman may have walked away from previous charges because his father is a judge? I mean the guy had an altercation with a cop and got no charges. Who the hell does that ever happen to?
The law is applied differently to people who are poor or black or otherwise marginalized.
“I can tell you that if it was the other way around, someone would be in jail by now,” Ulysees Cunningham said Wednesday.
Florida is a cesspool of thug cops and corrupt officials. One of my earliest memories growing up in Florida is of the Liberty City riot that broke out after a bunch of white cops got away with beating a black man to death. The cops tried to cover it up. The truth came out. They went to trial and then they walked away.
Nothing much has changed. Seven black men were shot and killed by Miami police in the course of eight months. As of last July, there were 63 police shootings in Miami (25 resulting in death) that remained under perpetual “investigation” while nothing happened to the officers. Growing up in Florida, I can tell you that I didn’t know many young males that were not regularly harassed by cops. If you were black, it was far worse and far more often, but Florida cops are real fucking thugs.
To the best of my knowledge, the “stand your ground” provision does not compel police and prosecutors to let somebody go if there are no other witnesses. It may be true that self defense claims have increased since the law was enacted. And the Garcia case that Ta-Nehisi Coates mentions on his blog is disturbing as hell. But I personally would be careful to assume that is typical.
Changes in the law around the obligation to retreat actually came about in part in response to battered women who killed their abusers.
And 100 years later, courts and legislatures faced a new problem: What to do with women who said they were victims of domestic violence and had killed their husbands to save themselves? Did you have a right not to retreat if the person coming after you lived under the same roof? At first, the answer was no, to the fury of feminists. Then in 1999, the Florida Supreme Court said a woman who shot and killed her husband during a violent fight at home could successfully call on the Castle Doctrine to argue self-defense. “It is now widely recognized that domestic violence attacks are often repeated over time, and escape from the home is rarely possible without the threat of great personal violence or death,” the court wrote.
What if we were talking about obligation to retreat in the context of one of the women who was in prison for murdering her abuser and finally pardoned by the Ohio governor? What if it was somebody faced with a bunch of armed Neo-Nazis stopping them on the street? What if Martin had been able to wrestle the gun away from Zimmerman and shoot him? Would you want the prosecutors to claim that he should have run away? We’re talking Florida here. The state would have killed Martin for sure.
Let’s not lose sight of the fact that it is how laws are selectively enforced that is at the root of the horrors that are our criminal (in)justice system.
One last thing.
Growing up in a very liberal, urban household, I was under the impression that it was only white supremacists stocking up for a race war that wanted guns. In the last fifteen years, I have met a whole lot of gun loving people who distrust/hate authority (especially cops) far more than they dislike people of other races and ethnicities.
I’m not saying that said people are free from racism. Racism is in the air and water in this country. I’m saying that I was often mistaken in what I imagined peoples primary motivations to be. I was often mistaken about where their anger and rage was focused. Not always mistaken. But often enough.
Florida is an extremely libertarian state. Even the liberals lean libertarian. Focusing on a provision of the self defense law doesn’t only seem to help the defense. It also distracts attention from the massively corrupt and abusive authorities in the state (especially police and prosecutors). And it decreases any chance people in Florida might have to build the seemingly unlikely alliances that might actually have the power to change things.
Let me be clear that I do not think focusing on police abuse and corruption should be instead of focusing on racism. Racism needs to be front and center. But we also need to be focusing on classism, privilege, power, and the abuses of power that are epidemic in the criminal (in)justice system.
It would not be easy to make those alliances. And it is asking a lot of people to try. But what other way is there?
* If anyone has good data on the cases that have used “stand your ground” as part of the defense, send them along.