Blacks who stand their ground often imprisoned

Zenitha Prince | 7/24/2013, 11:55 a.m.

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, which hung over the Zimmerman trial along with 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 for the Center for Media and Democracy. “It is a symbol of how the American justice system devalues the lives of people of color. ‘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 the 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 had a reasonable belief that they faced 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 advances federalist and conservative public policies. 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 attorney in Baltimore.

Pettit drew comparisons to police-involved shootings of African Americans in which 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 said 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 protections 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 person.

Similarly, an analysis of Supplemental Homicide Reports 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, the shooting is ruled justified in 9.5 percent of cases in states that do not have “stand-your-ground” laws.

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. While his defense team did not invoke the law, Circuit Court Judge Debra Nelson introduced the principle in her instructions to the jury.