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It’s Not The Race Card; It’s The Cowboy Card

July 16, 2013

stand-your-ground-statesLike most of America over the last few months, it has been impossible for me to avoid coverage of the George Zimmerman trial. For those who have lived under a rock, here is a synopsis: George Zimmerman performed “neighborhood watch” patrols regularly around his gated community. On February 26th, 2012, Zimmerman noticed an individual in a dark hoodie walking around the neighborhood (this would later be revealed to be Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old walking back from a convenience store to a home he was at with his father). Zimmerman called the police, and told them he was following the individual and believed he was up to suspicious activity. The police informed Zimmerman that they would handle it, and that he should stop pursuing the individual. When Zimmerman noted that he would possibly pursue the individual on foot, the police explicitly told Zimmerman that he should NOT pursue the individual. Ignoring this, Zimmerman eventually got out of his vehicle and began pursuing the individual (Martin) on foot. At some point, and this is the gray area of the facts, Martin realized he was being followed, and after approx 4-5 minutes, turned around to confront Zimmerman. An altercation ensued, and during the altercation, Zimmerman pulled out a gun and fired at Martin, killing almost instantly.

After a jury-trial, Zimmerman was found not guilty of 2nd-degree murder and not guilty of manslaughter. Many people were outraged at these verdicts. However, many people had already steeled themselves for this outcome. Why? Because the law was on Zimmerman’s side from the minute he started potentially losing the fight. And this is not in a “on his side because Trayvon was black” kind of statement (though you could certainly find evidence to that if you wanted to, but I don’t here); it was on his side because this ridiculous law was written specifically for people in Zimmerman’s position. Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law is part of Florida Statute 776.012. At it’s base is a idea that many people sympathize with – the idea that you should be able to protect your home, your property, and your body with any force available is very “American”. Most gun users are echoing this statement when they say things like, “As an American, I have a right to protect myself and my family by any means necessary!”

Look, I get this. The idea that if an intruder is coming into your home, or if a mugger attacks you on the street, that you have the right to blast them into oblivion seems fantastic. We as American’s have this romanticized view of the Wild, Wild West (wiki wiki), where men were men and they protected their own by any means necessary, including a piece of cold steel in their hand!

The reason these laws are usually called “Stand Your Ground” laws, is because that in most of American legal history, there has been an idea that if you CAN reasonably retreat from a fight or altercation, that you SHOULD retreat from a fight or altercation. With these laws, that duty to retreat is thrown out the window, thus giving you the right to “stand your ground” if you feel you are in danger of losing your life, or at least in danger of great bodily harm.

However, Florida’s SYG law (and many of the other states in the US with matching laws) enters almost immediate shaky ground towards the end of the law. That’s where we get to 776.041, which states:

Use of force by aggressor. —The justification described in the preceding sections of this chapter is not available to a person who:

(1) Is attempting to commit, committing, or escaping after the commission of, a forcible felony; or

(2) Initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself, unless:

(a) Such force is so great that the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant; or

(b) In good faith, the person withdraws from physical contact with the assailant and indicates clearly to the assailant that he or she desires to withdraw and terminate the use of force, but the assailant continues or resumes the use of force.

So right here was the turn, ladies and gentleman, and why everyone pretty much knew that Zimmerman was going to walk. According to these laws, even if you are the aggressor in an altercation, as long as you can get someone to “reasonably doubt” that at some point the fight turned out of your favor, your free to start shooting at will. In case I have to spell it out for you, THIS IS BANANAS.

Now some would argue, “Look, this was a bad situation for Trayvon, but overall, the law is good and it works!” No, no it’s not. Even if the Zimmerman case had never happened, this law is a disaster and is being abused right and left. Don’t believe me?

The Tampa Bay Times, in the wake of the Zimmerman case, began in investigation in June to review as many “Stand Your Ground” cases as possible. They reviewed around 240 cases dating back to 2005. The results are mind-numbing. In review, here are just a few of the most choice findings:

  • In the cases where the victim was killed, 70% of the victims were completely unarmed. In comparison, in the cases where the accused murdered the victim, 63% of the accused were armed with a gun.
  • In 53% of the cases, the defendant’s could have clearly retreated at some point before the killing (or attempted killing in the “lucky” cases) occurred.
  • In 51% of the cases, the defendant clearly pursed the victim, eventually leading to the altercation.
  • In 68% of cases, the defendant is not punished at all.
  • In 73% of the cases, the victim was NOT committing a crime or even coming close to committing a crime before the altercation.
  • When a black person was killed, the accused walked free 73% of the time. When a white person was killed, that freedom ratio drops to 59% of the time. That’s a 14% freedom swing based on race, kids.

If these stats alone aren’t enough to help you see the immense flaws in the way this law is written, then I simply point you to this case. Or this one. Or this one. Or, sweet lord, this one. The common thread with all of these is that they paint a very different picture than the one defenders of the law try to paint, of the proud American man defending his home from robbers. This law is ridiculously flawed, and deserves some fairly massive overhaul in how and when it can be applied.

But it won’t. It won’t be changed. It won’t be altered. Because, as recent attempts at gun reform on a national level have shown, nothing is going to prevent us from retreating to our wild, wild west ways. We are a society driven crazy by the notion that there’s ever a wrong time to have and use a gun, as long as we personally feel justified.

Thoughts at the Closing Bell:

That’s all for now, kids. One love to you all.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. July 16, 2013 3:07 pm

    race mattered here, and there are two words to prove it: marissa alexander. link:

    daddy was telling me about sanford, FL and its history. (he spent age 11-25 in west-central FL.) it’s an ugly place with an ugly history. and that juror…. oh dear lord.

    the cowboy thing is important to consider. but so is race. we are not out of the woods yet…

    • July 16, 2013 3:11 pm

      It’s not that I don’t disagree that race matters in cases like this (that’s why I included the disparity on victims in race).

      However, tackling the issue of race in the judicial system is a beast that will take immeasurable effort to tackle. Rewriting this shitty, ridiculous, law, however? That could be done in one legislative session.

    • Anna permalink
      July 16, 2013 3:58 pm

      Not trying to start a debate, but I’ve seen some facts being lost in comparing the two cases. The judge threw out a SYG defense because the woman went out to her car, got a gun, went back inside, and shot at her husband with two kids in the room (and missed). The jury found her guilty of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Because she fired a gun while committing a felony, Florida’s mandatory-minimum gun law dictated the 20-year sentence. The big issue there was the removal of judge discretion based on the facts of the case. Florida, like many states, have automatic mandatory sentences for crimes committed with guns in an attempt to curb gun violence.

      • July 16, 2013 4:08 pm

        Yeah, Anna, there was a reason that I didn’t reference the Alexander case. In provides for what seems like an easy-comparison, mostly because of how quickly it follows on the heels of the Zimmerman case, but the facts of the case are just too messy to make a simple comparison.

        That being said, you hit the nail on the head, and I know we’ve agreed on this in the past – the removal of judicial discretion from the Justice system, especially when it comes to sentencing, is one of the more troubling evolution’s of the legal system over the last half century.

  2. July 16, 2013 3:11 pm

    Most of the time I would turn away and refrain from posting my disagreements with someone’s thoughts, but I feel that I know you well enough as a brother that we can candidly discuss this issue with no ill will.

    The first thing I want to point out is that a 911 dispatcher was the person that old Zimmerman to retreat. Zimmerman’s first direct contact with the police was when they arrived on the scene. Secondly, there had been an out break of crime in that community as well as other surrounding communities. I don’t consider following a person that you don’t recognize walking through your gated community unreasonable by any member of the communiess a member of the neighborhood watch. Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that Zimmerman was the aggressor in starting the physical altercation.

    With all that being said, I can agree that the Florida “Stand Your Ground Law” could use some revision strictly for clarification issues. While it is impossible for any law to be spefic to every event it could ever be applied to, there is certainly room for improvement.

    As for the statistics you provided, they are thought provoking. However, you know as well as I do that we can make statistics say what we want them to. The fact that these statistics are being provided by a journalistic publication is also troubling. What happened to unbias reporting? We need to stop accepting this one sided biased reporting and demand both sides of the story be told. To date, that has not happened. I feel for the Martin family and hate to hear it anytime someone loses their life.

    If we are going to make race such an issue in this case, then I invite everyone to review the on going case in Georgia where 17 year old De’Marquise Elkins murdered a 13 month old infant when his mother refused to give them money. This black man shot a white/hispanic baby as it sat in a stroller. Rolls reversed from the Zimmerman case, but there’s been no public outrage, no cry for justice for an infant, no uproar when the grand jury decided Elkins would not face the death penalty for his actions, little to no media coverage and certainly no attention from the DOJ or POTUS. Is it only racist if a black person is the victim? Or do these crimes have nothing to do with race and more to do with the situation?

  3. July 17, 2013 10:51 am

    Trayvon Martin was standing his ground as well. A man he didn’t know was following him. He stood his ground and confronted his aggressor, and he got killed for it. Zimmerman went looking for a chance to play the hero so all his buddies would hear how he thwarted a would-be B&E and say “cool story, bro.” If he had just stayed in his car, this would have never happened.

    I always assumed that SYG and the castle doctrine went hand in hand, and that nobody would really go looking for a confrontation and then claim SYG as their defense when they kill an unarmed child THAT THEY ARE PURSUING. As always, I assume and expect too much from people.


  1. Why Stand Your Ground Had Nothing to Do With the Zimmerman Trial | THE DAILY BRAIN TRUST
  2. More On Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law and the Zimmerman Trial | THE DAILY BRAIN TRUST

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