Zimmerman verdict highlights questionable law
Florida's 'stand your ground' law means a person can use lethal force in self-defence cases without first trying to retreat to safety.PT2M17S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2pzk3 620 349 July 15, 2013
So far the protests have been largely peaceful. Thousands have turned out in cities across America to lament the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder or manslaughter of Trayvon Martin.
Those on the street cannot accept that a man can shoot a boy on his way home dead and not pay some penalty. Nor do they believe that race was not a factor in Martin's death and Zimmerman's acquittal.
Stand Your Ground gun laws are an extension of a long history of US citizens using violence as self-help.
"Only in America can a dead black boy go on trial for his own murder," tweeted the New York writer Syreeta McFadden, capturing the mood of the protesters.
Demonstrators march through the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan in New York holding a cut-out of Trayvon Martin during a protest against the acquittal of neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman. Photo: AP
The debate has already fractured America along familiar fault lines, with elements of political left backing the NAACP's call for an investigation into possible civil rights violations, and of the right accusing them of playing the race card. The Justice Department said it was restarting its investigation into the 2012 shooting death of Martin to consider possible separate hate crime charges against Zimmerman.
Tension is high and bleak memories of race riots that have plagued this nation are close.
In this context it is perhaps understandable then that another crucial debate is being drowned out.
George Zimmerman enters the courtroom for his trial in Seminole County circuit court in Sanford, Florida. Photo: AP
People appear to have forgotten that when race first became a factor in this case it was because for six weeks after the shooting Zimmerman was neither arrested nor charged.
In large part this was due to Florida's so-called Stand Your Ground law, introduced in 2005, which made shooting people dead on that state's streets far more likely to be legal than it used to be.
As is so often the case Florida was an early adopter of a law being championed by conservative activists, and in this case drafted by the National Rifle Association. Stand Your Ground laws, known by critics as Shoot First laws, extend the so-called castle-doctrine from the home to the street, making it legal to use lethal force against someone in public if you "reasonably" believe yourself to be at significant risk.
Gun culture runs deep in the US. A group of about twenty demonstrators raise their toy guns at a passing helicopter near the Lincoln Memorial as they march in a 'Toy Gun March' demonstration, organized by a Libertarian website to highlight Second Amendment gun right Photo: Reuters
In doing so they reverse the onus of proof. Where once someone who had killed a person had to prove they acted in self-defence, under Stand Your Ground the prosecution must prove that the accused did not feel that they were at risk.
Also the laws expressly remove the requirement that once existed in the use of self-defence that a person retreat if given the opportunity. That is, under Stand Your Ground, killing someone in a fight need not be the last option.
And given that the only witnesses to these incidents are often the accused and the person they have just killed, Stand Your Ground is proving quite a handy defence.
For example, says Matt Mangino, a defence lawyer and former prosecutor, under Stand Your Ground it could well be legal to get into a dispute with a neighbour, allow the quarrel to descend into scuffle, and if he was bigger than you and you feared significant harm, to shoot him dead.
In a case soon to be tried in the Florida town of Port St. Joe, a white man named Walt Butler is using Stand Your Ground in his defence for shooting his black neighbour Everett Gant, who had confronted him over using a racial slur against a child in their apartment complex.
Butler shot Gant between the eyes with a .22 calibre rifle, called the police and then finished making his dinner, reported a local paper, The Star. A deputy said he found Butler eating supper and acting "inconvenienced" with his arrest because he "had only shot a (racial slur)," The Star reported.
Maningo says he is coming across cases in which drug dealers use Stand Your Ground as a defence after shootings.
Since Florida introduced the law 30 other states — nearly all of them conservative — have followed suit. Many of them simply knocked off the Florida legislation or used draft laws provided by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that seeds laws among the states.
Zimmerman, in the end, did not resort to the Stand Your Ground argument in court, instead relying on straight self-defence. Nonetheless, the ease with which self-defence invoked in murder cases is clearly on the minds of Floridians.
Florida Senate's Democratic leader, Fort Lauderdale's Chris Smith, called for a reexamination of all self-defence laws in a statement released less than half an hour after the Zimmerman verdict was handed down.
"The fact that a child is dead and an armed man can now walk free without so much as a backward glance sends the wrong message to Florida and its citizens," he said.
"If someone makes the claim of self defence and the only other witness to the confrontation is dead, there needs to be a higher standard for proving that the use of deadly force was justified," he said.
There is little chance of any real debate in Florida, where the state legislature remains in Tea Party hands.
Stand Your Ground laws are perfectly suited to a current conservative worldview, says the Columbia University law professor Jeffrey Fagan. They speak of mistrust of government and its agencies, they privatise public space they promote individualism at its most rugged.
He notes that they are an extension of a long history of US citizens using violence as self-help.
"Lynchings, riots, civil disobedience, and vigilantism are all expressions of individual or collective action that reject both legal norms and the authority of state actors," he has written.
Homicide rates have not increased in Florida since Stand Your Ground laws were introduced, and supporters see this as evidence that they are working safely and as intended.
One man who has studied them more broadly, Texas A&M University economist Mark Hoekstra, disagrees. "These laws lower the cost of using lethal force," he told National Public Radio in January. "Our study finds that, that homicides go up by seven to nine percent in states that pass the laws, relative to states that didn't pass the laws over the same time period."
Although, Zimmerman's case hinged on self-defence, Stand Your Ground language still found its way into the court case, with instructions given to the jury declaring, "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."
As long as force meets deadly force, and as long as citizens are relieved of the "duty to retreat", Professor Fagan expects more to die as Trayvon Martin did.
Meanwhile it has been confirmed that Zimmerman is eligible to have his handgun returned to him.
with New York Times