Is it Always Good to Stand Your Ground?
On March 21, 2012, a cold, gloomy night, over a thousand hooded protesters gathered in New York City’s Union Square, holding signs asking “Am I suspicious?" and “We demand justice for Trayvon” (Sandoval). This march was just one of the “Million Hoodie” marches that have sprung up across the country since the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. In Sanford, Florida on February 26, 2012, Martin was shot in the chest while walking home from buying candy and ice tea (“Stand Your”). His shooter, 28-year-old George Zimmerman, was not arrested until almost two months after he committed this crime (“Stand Your”). This was because of his claim of defense under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which states that a person may use force, including deadly force, as self-defense when there is a reasonable belief of a threat of death or great bodily harm, without the duty to retreat first. As an aspiring lawyer, this case and this law have particular importance to me. I believe this law is being taken advantage of and has had devastating effect on families who can’t seek justice for their murdered loved ones. For this reason, I am urging Florida’s state legislature, particularly Representative Dennis Baxley, and other states’ legislatures to repeal Stand Your Ground.
The history of Stand Your Ground laws dates back all the way to 1895, with the Supreme Court case Beard v. United States. In this case, the court ruled:
“A man assailed on his own grounds, without provocation, by a person armed with a deadly weapon and apparently seeking his life is not obliged to retreat, but may stand his ground and defend himself with such means as are within his control; and so long as there is no intent on his part to kill his antagonist, and no purpose of doing anything beyond what is necessary to save his own life, is not guilty of murder or manslaughter if death results to his antagonist from a blow given him under such circumstances” (“Beard v. United States”).
The Stand Your Ground law has some great differences between the self-defense law many of us are used to, known as the Castle Doctrine. The New Jersey State Legislature defines the Castle Doctrine as “a long-standing American legal concept arising from English Common Law that provides that one's abode is a special area in which one enjoys certain protections and immunities, that one is not obligated to retreat before defending oneself against attack, and that one may do so without fear of prosecution” (Merkt, Mchose, and Chiappone). This means, for example, if an intruder were to enter your home, you have the right to fight back and use lethal force if necessary, with no duty to retreat first. All fifty states have some form of the Castle Doctrine, however not all have expanded it to the Stand Your Ground Law (“Castle Doctrine”). Currently, twenty-four states have adopted some form of the Stand Your Ground Law (Lushing).
Martin’s case and a number of other news-making cases revolving around the Stand Your Ground law have occurred in Florida, so I have decided to specifically focus on Florida’s Stand Your Ground law for this paper. Florida’s Stand Your Ground law specifically states, “A person who uses force as permitted in s. 776.012, s. 776.013, or s. 776.031 is justified in using such force and is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such force” (“House of Rep.”). Florida’s statute 776.012 is critical to understanding the liberties the Stand Your Ground law gives to citizens. Statute 776.012 states:
“A person is justified in using force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other's imminent use of unlawful force. However, a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if: (1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony; or (2) Under those circumstances permitted pursuant to s. 776.013” (“House of Rep.”).
In Florida, a “forcible felony” includes such heinous crimes as murder, manslaughter, and sexual battery, but also includes less heinous crimes such as carjacking, robbery, and burglary (“Florida State Courts”). In Florida, the courts also have what is known as “true immunity,” which means a trial judge can throw out a case based on the assertion of Stand Your Ground before the trial even begins (Bazelon).
State Representative Dennis Baxley, one of the authors of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, recently defended why he supported this legislation in an interview and said his goal was “to protect lives, and to empower” (Baxley, “Fla.”). Florida’s Governor Jeb Bush, who signed the bill in 2005, also stated his support of the bill: “to have to retreat and put yourself in a very precarious position defies common sense” (Goodman). Since the passing of the bill in 2005, Florida’s number average “justified killings” per year, meaning killings ruled in self-defense, has tripled (Smith). In fact, in 2004, just one year before Stand Your Ground was adopted, there were eight killings in Florida that were ruled justifiable homicide by civilians and 23 killings ruled justifiable by police (Smith). In 2010, justifiable killings by civilians had risen to 40 and justifiable killings by police rose to 56, resulting in an increase of justifiable killings by 200 percent (Smith). In a recent report by the Wall Street Journal, while analyzing crime statistics from all 50 states from 2000 to 2010, found that “while the overall homicide rates in those states [with Stand Your Ground laws] stayed relatively flat, the average number of justifiable cases per year increased by more than 50 percent in the decade's latter half” (“Self-Defense”).
It is obvious from this data that Stand Your Ground Laws have had a noticeable effect on crime statistics in this country. But their effects mean more than just numbers. I will now examine three cases in Florida, including Trayvon Martin’s cases, which have been controversially effected by the Stand Your Ground law. The first case took place in September 2010, in Valrico, Florida, a town just outside of Tampa. The incident began when a 14-year-old skateboarder entered a park in a small neighborhood and asked permission to practice jumps from David James, an Iraq War veteran, who was playing basketball with his 8-year-old daughter (Barry). 70-year-old neighbor Trevor Dooley overheard the conversation between Dooley and the skateboarder and came out of his garage to tell the skateboarder to get off the premises. In the skateboarder’s testimony, he stated that Dooley went back into his garage and then walked across the street with a “dark object” stuck in his waistband (Barry). Dooley started an argument with James and it escalated until Dooley pulled out his weapon, at which point James grabbed Dooley’s hand and the two fell to the ground, wrestling for Dooley’s pistol (Barry).
The altercation ended when Dooley fired his pistol, killing James in front of his daughter. Witnesses who have testified for the case report that James never tried to punch or choke Dooley, but only tried to get the gun out of Dooley’s hands, "there were no threats, no fists," witness Michelle Whitt said (Barry). Although Dooley was the aggressor who brought a lethal weapon to the scene, Dooley’s defense attorney is trying to use the Stand Your Ground law to get the case thrown out, appealing to the fact that Dooley was smaller and much older than James and therefore felt he was in imminent danger. The thought that an armed man, no matter how small or old, can walk up to a man with his daughter and start an altercation that ultimately ends in killing that father in front of his child frankly terrifies me. No law should ever protect a person who commits this crime.
In an interview with NPR on March 26, 2012, Representative Baxley was questioned whether he was even aware of Dooley’s case by a caller (Baxley, “Op-Ed”). In response, Representative Baxley stated, “I'm not, but I think the caller has really hit the nail on the head. This [Trayvon Martin’s case] is not about this statute. What this is about is the underlying concern about the disproportionate or unfair or unjust application of the laws that we have” (Baxley, “Op-Ed”). It seems in this statement that even though Rep. Baxley sponsored Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, he admits it is being misused or taken advantage of in cases like Dooley’s.
Another case in Florida involving Stand Your Ground took place in January of 2012 in Miami. According to the Miami Herald, 25-year-old Greyston Garcia was alerted by a roommate that a man, Pedro Roteta, was stealing his stereo out of his car (Ovalle). According to reports, Garcia grabbed a large knife and ran downstairs. Court documents say he chased Roteta for more than a block and then stabbed Roteta to death after Roteta swung a bag of three car radios towards Garcia’s face (Ovalle). Garcia, instead of calling 911, went home and later hid the knife and sold two of the radios (AP). Garcia initially denied involvement in the man’s death, but later admitted to the stabbing, although “he actually never saw a weapon” on Roteta (Ovalle).
Garcia’s case is distinct from the two other cases in two respects: it was a crime that was caught on video by a surveillance camera, and a Miami-Dade judge has already made a verdict on the case (Ovalle). On March 21, 2012, Judge Beth Bloom threw out the case and decided to acquit Garcia of all charges under grounds of the Stand Your Ground Law. One has to ask how the Stand Your Ground can apply when someone chases a suspected thief for over a block before stabbing them to death. As reported, Garcia never actually saw Roteta in the process of stealing his radio, but was alerted by a roommate. According to police reports, Roteta was also not carrying a weapon other than a small pocketknife, which remained unopened in his pocket during the attack (Ovalle).
The prosecutor in the case, Jennie Conklin, made the point in a motion that Garcia “no longer needed to use deadly force to protect his home or unoccupied vehicle” once he began chasing Roteta (Ovalle). In this quote Conklin was like referring to the statement in Stand Your Ground that specifically states that lethal force may be used to “prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony”. By the time Garcia was alerted to Roteta’s actions, Roteta had already committed the theft, so it seems if anyone had protection under Stand Your Ground, it would have been Roteta, if he had fought back from being chased by someone with a large kitchen knife. The police should have been called to arrest Roteta for his crime but I do not believe it was Garcia’s right to stab Roteta to death after the theft. Even Governor Bush, who signed in Stand Your Ground, has stated, "Stand your ground means stand your ground. It doesn't mean chase after somebody who's turned their back” (Chow). Unfortunately, because the law leaves the decision up to a judge, the law is being applied to offenders it may not have intended to protect.
The last case I would like to examine which has received the most media coverage in the past months is the case of Trayvon Martin. As stated earlier, Martin was shot after an altercation with George Zimmerman, the self-appointed neighborhood watch volunteer. Zimmerman made the 911 call after seeing what he described as "a real suspicious guy" walking through the neighborhood with a hoodie over his head (Weinstein). Zimmerman had already begun stalking Martin when he made the 911 call, and after discussing his location with the dispatcher, Zimmerman stated, "Shit, he's running," at which point the dispatcher asked Zimmerman if he was following Martin (Weinstein). Zimmerman affirmed that he was and then received a strict order from the dispatcher to stop following Martin (Weinstein). Yet, Zimmerman disobeyed the dispatcher and continued to follow Martin. Zimmerman eventually caught up with Martin and from what has been reported by the police, an altercation occurred and Zimmerman shot and killed Martin with his 9mm semiautomatic handgun, for which he had a permit to carry (“Stand Your”).
Zimmerman, a 200-pound-man armed with a handgun, followed Martin, a 140-pound-teenager with only a bag of skittles and a can of ice tea until a confrontation occurred and Zimmerman fatally shot Martin (“Stand Your”). Yet, police took almost two months to arrest Zimmerman because they saw no reason to doubt his claims of self-defense and under the rights of Stand Your Ground he had not committed a crime. But many, including lawmakers, have raised the question of how a self-defense claim can be used when the assailant is pursuing the person they use the self-defense claim against. NPR has reported that Florida State Sen. Chris Smith is preparing a bill that “would not allow a self-defense claim in cases where the shooter appeared to provoke the victim” (“Stand Your”).
On March 26, 2012, after Zimmerman’s lawyer abruptly left a scheduled interview on MSNBC’s show “The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell,” O’Donnell held an interview with columnist Charles Blow of the New York Times (O'Donnell). Blow brought up several crucial issues central to the case. It has been confirmed that there was an altercation before the shooting, but there has not yet been evidence to prove whether Martin or Zimmerman started the physical confrontation. Blow, in reference to the idea of Zimmerman starting the confrontation stated, “if you start a fight and you are losing it, you don`t have the right to claim self-defense,” which he said brings about the legal of question of whether self-defense can switch parties in an altercation (O'Donnell). In reference to the idea of Martin starting the physical altercation, Blow makes the point that Martin could have been covered under the Stand Your Ground law, “If a stranger follows you, who you can identify is armed and the police department has said that he`s [Zimmerman] wearing his gun in a holster on his waist…do I then under the Florida "Stand Your Ground" law, have the right to meet force with force?” (O'Donnell). On the first idea that Zimmerman started the fight, I agree with Blow and believe if you choose to start a physical fight with another person, you make the decision to risk the possibility of getting injured or killed. On the second idea, because Zimmerman followed Martin with a lethal weapon at close distance for blocks, I believe even if Martin started physical altercation, he could have easily been justified in doing so under Stand Your Ground. In fact, I would be very surprised to hear of anyone not feeling threatened from being followed by a visibly armed stranger at night.
The one thing the Dooley, Garcia, and Martin cases all have in common is that a true tragedy occurred within all three. The first question most people ask when someone has been murdered is “So who’s to blame?” There seems to be conflicting ideas of who the real perpetrator is in all of these cases. Some blame the police departments for doing their job incompetently, while others blame the offenders like Dooley, Garcia, and Zimmerman. There are also some who, in reflection on these cases, blame the law of Stand Your Ground. While I do agree that there are some major flaws with this law, I feel it is too simple to place blame on one source alone. I argue that these tragedies come from a combination of all three: incompetence within the criminal justice system, harmful legislation like Stand Your Ground, and a degradation of our country’s morality as a whole.
Criticism of the criminal justice system is no new or radical claim. Police departments across the country have been criticized for mistakes, prejudice and inefficiency for decades. However, the Stand Your Ground law has given new responsibilities to police departments that they now have to be accountable for. In Florida’s version of Stand Your Ground, the law “allows police on the scene to decide whether they believe a shooter’s claims of self-defense” (Gendar). This means that if the police on the scene do decide to believe the shooter’s claim of self-defense, like in the case of Trayvon Martin’s, they do not need to do the standard evidence collection process that they would in a criminal investigation. The shooter can even go home with the weapon they used to kill the other party, as George Zimmerman did after he shot Martin. Although this decision may take less than an hour on the scene, it can have a crucial effect on the case for the rest of its duration. In the Martin case, the police did not test Zimmerman for alcohol and drug levels, nor did they do a background check, even though both were done for Martin (Segal et al.). There has also been questioning of the Sanford Police Department on how thorough their evidence collection was.
On March 21, 2012 the Sanford City Commission voted that “they had no confidence in the city’s police chief” (Alvarez). Since then the Sanford Police Chief has stepped down from his position and the department is being led by a replacement chief. Even if racism or bias doesn’t come into play when making the decision of whether or not to believe the self-defense claim, once the decision has been made, an incalculable amount of evidence is lost from not doing an official homicide investigation on the scene. On NBC’s “Nightly News with Brian Williams”, NBC legal correspondent Savannah Guthrie stated in regards the consequences of not doing a proper investigation in Martin’s case that “there may have been forensics there that the police really didn’t pursue. This person [Zimmerman] was able to walk away in the clothes he was wearing so if there was any kind of ballistics or forensics—gun-shot residue, that’s lost forever. Police apparently didn’t do a pointed interrogation that would have elicited a statement that may have ultimately been used” (“Nightly News”).
Guthrie stated that because Martin’s case has been so widely publicized, many agencies, including the federal government and the FBI, will be keeping a close eye on the investigation to make sure there are no more incompetent mistakes made. But what about the hundreds of other non-publicized cases across the country where people are using Stand Your Ground to defend their crime? It’s hard to believe the federal government could keep a close eye on all of these cases. For all of these cases without big brother watching over, easily made mistakes by the police go overlooked and for the families of the victims, justice falls even further out of reach. Law professor Michael J.Z. Mannheimer perfectly encapsulates the dire consequences of leaving legal analysis up to police instead of the courts when he states:
“…self-defense under the Florida law acts as an immunity from prosecution or even arrest…this odd provision means that a person who uses deadly force in self-defense cannot be tried, even though the highly fact-intensive question of whether the person acted in self-defense is usually hashed out at trial. The law thus creates a paradox: the State must make a highly complex factual determination before being permitted to avail itself of the forum necessary to make such a determination” (Mannheimer).
The provisions of Stand Your Ground effectively stunt the legal process of “innocent until proven guilty” and instead shorten it to “innocent as decided by officers on the scene” which consequently renders our entire judicial process useless. While police departments have lots of room for error in investigations, Stand Your Ground opens the door for these errors and for the perpetrators looking to manipulate this law to their advantage. Representative Baxley, in an interview with Neal Conan of NPR, stated his original hopes for the law when he helped create it: “from my review, I certainly - it certainly wasn't the intent of any of us to protect anyone who was pursuing and confronting other people. It was when an individual law-abiding citizen was the subject and the victim of a violent attack” (Baxley and Conan).
When asked by Conan why Stand Your Ground wouldn’t apply to Zimmerman’s case, Representative Baxley stated “well, simply because if you carefully read the statute, which most of the critics have not, and read the legislative analysis, there's nothing in this statute that authorizes you to pursue or confront other people. If anything, this law would have protected the victim in this case” (Baxley and Conan). If this were the case, then why was Greyston Garcia acquitted of all charges after chasing down Pedro Roteta for over a block and stabbing then stabbing him to death? The Miami judge who decided the case clearly thought Stand Your Ground did apply. This shows that there is a clear misunderstanding and or manipulation of the law occurring.
This may have something to do with the law’s vague wording. As stated earlier, the law says someone may use lethal force if “he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony”.John F. Timoney, a former Miami police chief, Philadelphia police commissioner and deputy police commissioner in New York, commented on the just one of the many parts of vague wording in the Stand Your Ground law:
“I pointed out that citizens feel threatened all the time, whether it’s from the approach of an aggressive panhandler or squeegee pest or even just walking down a poorly lighted street at night. In tightly congested urban areas, public encounters can be threatening; a look, a physical bump, a leer, someone you think may be following you” (Timoney).
Timoney’s statement points to the fact that the law leaves a broad definition of what “threatening” means and in an MSNBC interview with Representative Baxley, the interviewer addressed an important aspect to this issue saying, “legal experts in your own state who now say we need to review this law solely based on the fact that if it is an issue of self-defense, the only person standing is the person who is alive and they're able to tell the story, not the dead person” (Baxley, “Fla.”). Representative Baxley agrees with Timoney in that there is a misapplication of the law occurring in many cases but still stands by the law as it is written now, saying “it is not a problem with the statute as much as it is a problem with how it is being applied” (Baxley, “Fla.”). But one must ask how a law can be so prevalently misapplied or taken advantage of case after case and yet have no flaws in the way the law is written or in the content itself. I believe when the sponsors of Florida’s Stand Your Ground wrote the law they truly had citizens’ safety and best interests in mind. Unfortunately, this law has had some unintended consequences and is now doing more harm than good. Some may argue that taking away Stand Your Ground would leave people vulnerable to attacks. The fact is that even if all Stand Your Ground laws were repealed, the Castle Doctrine would still be in place to protect people inside their homes and self-defense could still be argued in court if an attack took place outside the home.
I believe Stand Your Ground is a severely flawed law, but we cannot overlook the lack morality of people who strategically use this law to kill fellow citizens. After the shooting of Trayvon Martin, many questioned whether the crime was racially motivated as Martin was an African American and Zimmerman is a white-Hispanic. The media and public exploded when Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera suggested that Martin could have possibly avoided being shot by not wearing a hoodie and baggy clothing, “You have to recognize that this whole stylizing yourself as a ''gangsta'… You’re gonna be a gangsta wanna? Well, people are going to perceive you as a menace. That’s what happens. It is an instant reflexive action” (Hudson). Although Rivera did not explicitly say he believed it was because Martin was black and wearing a hoodie that he looked suspicious, many, including myself, questioned whether he would have made those comments if Trayvon had been white. Black New York Times columnist Charles Blow voiced the concern many journalists of color felt after Martin’s shooting when he stated in a Times article, “this is the fear that seizes me whenever my boys are out in the world: that a man with a gun and an itchy finger will find them ‘suspicious’” (Stelter). It’s a sad fact in this country but racism is still a very prevalent issue in our society. Almost 200,000 hate crime victimizations occurred each year in the U.S. from 2003 to 2009 (“Interested in”).
It is an individual’s moral judgment that decides whether or not to commit a racial or ethnically based crime, however, Stand Your Ground laws may make it easier for these crimes to be covered up as self-defense. Perhaps the most horrifying example of Stand Your Ground exacerbating the immorality of U.S. citizens occurred in 2008 in Tallahassee, where a gang shootout erupted and a 15-year-old boy was killed. The case was dismissed by a judge who pointed to Florida’s Stand Your Ground law (“The Trouble”). In my opinion, gang violence or any violence for that matter, is never moral but a law that allows people who commit these crimes to walk away unscathed from prosecution, I believe, is also immoral.
Unfortunately, the issues of our country’s criminal justice system and the state of our society’s morality are not feasibly solvable at this time. What are solvable are the negative impacts coming from Stand Your Ground laws. In just seven years, half of our states adopted some form of a Stand Your Ground Law. This law is clearly spreading like wild fire and this is why it is so imperative that Florida and other state’s legislatures review and repeal this law. In doing so, I believe we could reduce the number of “justified killings” taking place and reduce the number of people who can get away with these murders. For me and many Americans, I believe there are an extremely limited number of situations when killing another human being is justified. In the cases I discussed, the fatal disputes were over skateboard rules, stolen stereos, and being “suspicious”. These hardly seem to be justified with murder. By repealing Stand Your Ground, justice can be served to families who lost their loved ones and to the perpetrators who justified their murders with this law.
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