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Blacks who stand their ground often imprisoned

Zenitha Prince

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.

“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 Latina 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 a 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 for 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, a 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 in a confrontation with her husband. Alexander said her husband was moving toward her as she attempted to retreat from him when she fired the shot. He was not injured.

Sen. Gary Siplin (D-Fla.) 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 said.

Working toward a repeal of the laws would be a positive 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, officials are vowing to examine the laws and work toward their repeal.

“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.

“To honor Trayvon and his family, we will continue this inquiry with resolve and renewed purpose,” Yaki said.