How Stand-Your-Ground Laws Protect White Privilege
February 26, 2012, neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman placed a 911 call, reporting a suspicious acting person, Treyvon Martin, who cut through yards on his way home. The 911 operators told Zimmerman not to approach Martin or to exit his vehicle, which he ignored then confronted Martin. The situation quickly escalated to violence and ended with Martin fatally shot in the chest. These facts as CNN reported in 2014 eventually led to a jury finding Zimmerman innocent of the charge of second-degree murder due to the fact that the jury could not determine if Zimmerman acted without regard for human life. The jury also had a choice to convict Zimmerman of manslaughter, which would have meant killing the victim without justification. Zimmerman’s attorney successfully argued that Zimmerman acted in self-defense, which negated the charges. The Zimmerman case provided a prolific view into both the flaw of Stand Your Ground laws and the underlying systemic racial bias fueling this law's growth.
Mens rea & Actus reusThe criminal justice system sometimes fails to provide justice even in situations where laws appear clear. Stand Your Ground’s failure is often amplified by negating concepts necessary for proper prosecution such as mens rea and actus reus.
Mens rea describes the “intention” required to prove murder in the first degree, which under Florida law, the prosecution would have to prove that Zimmerman acted with intent to kill Martin. The prosecution did not feel that it was possible to prove intent and chose to prosecute Zimmerman for second-degree murder with the option of manslaughter.
To obtain the second-degree murder charge, the prosecution would have needed to show actus reus or “a criminal act or an unlawful omission of an act, must have occurred”. Under second-degree murder or manslaughter, this means showing Zimmerman acted in a criminal manner, specifically using deadly force when not necessary.
Neither of these legal concepts could be shown in the Zimmerman case mainly due to Stand Your Ground interfering with juror judgment.
Under Florida law, a person using an unequal amount of force can be prosecuted, which seems rational when studying the Zimmerman case and realizing Zimmerman shot an unarmed Martin. However, Florida’s “stand your ground” law permits the use of deadly force against an aggressor when the person feels their life is in jeopardy. When Martin and Zimmerman fought, Zimmerman could retaliate despite the fact that Zimmerman instigated the situation. This presents a major flaw in stand-your-ground law in which extreme cases such as Zimmerman's can be justified based solely on the word of the defendant. Zimmerman’s self-defense account justified his acquittal based on his claim that Martin’s fighting made Zimmerman fear for his life enough to fire his gun. Clearly, the jurors could not rule out this account since Martin was dead and could not provide his version of events and were forced to acquit
Self-defense has always been a problematic area of law complicated by different definitions but making this area of law even more confusing is stand-your-ground laws since they eliminate elements of crime such as the victim’s view and defendant’s intent. Once Martin was dead, the only witness to the crime was Zimmerman. As such, juries are hampered by the law and forced to render verdicts of not guilty despite a clear inequity in the law. Race worsens this inequity due to biases that statistically show a disparity in stand-your-ground.
In 2012, Frontline reported on racial bias in stand-your-ground laws and found the following facts:
…the rates of murder and non-negligent manslaughter increased by 8 percent in states with Stand Your Ground laws.
In non Stand Your Ground states, whites were 250% more likely to be found justified when killing a black person than a white person who kills another white person; in Stand-Your-Ground states, that number increased 354%.
In a scathing 2020 report by the US Commission on Civil Rights, researchers found that not only do Stand Your Ground laws fail to deter crimes but instead lead to more homicides. This report goes on to show that these laws also led to large increases in “unlawful and justified homicides” because these laws “help escalate a dispute into an incident with deadly consequences.”
The fact that Stand-Your-Ground increases deadly violence holds severe implications for people of color already at-risk of higher rates of detainment, arrest, and prosecution. The US Commission on Civil Rights stated,
…if you are a black American, the chances of your death being ruled “justified” and, therefore, immune to prosecution increases if you die in a Stand Your Ground state.The chance of your family being able to seek justice goes down if you are killed in a Stand Your Ground state. That chance that your killer gets off scott free increases if you are black and your killer is white in a Stand Your Ground state.
Stand Your Ground laws highlight racial bias clearly in the fact that law enforcement often has problems determining Stand Your Ground, giving rise to situations where people are killed and no charges are brought similar to the Zimmerman case where law enforcement originally refused to bring charges, citing Stand Your Ground. In other cases, deadly drug deals have gone unpunished because of Stand Your Ground.
In 2006, a Miami man avoided prosecution after spraying a car filled with gang members with 14 bullets. In 2008, a 15-year-old Tallahassee boy was killed in a shoot-out between rival gangs; two of the gang members successfully used Stand Your Ground to protect themselves from prosecution. ~US Commission on Civil Rights
Again, the flaw of Stand Your Ground reveals, posing the question of why a law that “in practice appears to fail miserably on the national level” continues to be implemented.
In a lack of any other reasonable conjecture, Stand Your Ground laws stem from systemic racism and bias that seek to maintain privilege. In the same manner that the War on Drugs became a means of gutting black communities of leadership and family, so too does Stand Your Ground which opens the hunting season on vulnerable populations by escalating and justifying killing through a flawed law that gives aggressors and vigilantes the right to kill. This problem of bias clearly elucidates from the vague nature of the law, which makes enforcement difficult if not impossible in many circumstances. More than vague, bias clearly shows in the preponderance of evidence that these laws largely favor whites. The inequity imposed by Stand Your Ground is likely to continue, further escalating racial tensions in the US unless these laws radically change.
Photo by Thomas Def on Unsplash