Before the George Zimmerman verdict, I said that the case had nothing to do with Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law. I said this because Zimmerman and his attorneys were not arguing “Stand Your Ground.” Stand Your Ground has to do with Florida’s wild west approach to the duty to retreat. Florida extends the castle doctrine to public spaces. To take the legalese out of it, Stand Your Ground simply means that if you are attacked in public, you don’t have to run, even if you can safely and reasonably do so. You can stand and fight, meet force with force, and shoot to kill if you fear for your life or a serious injury.
But that wasn’t the case Zimmerman was making. He argued that he had no opportunity to reasonably and safely escape anyway, so it was a simple issue of self-defense. Stand Your Ground had nothing to do with it.
Anyway, I wrote that, and then an hour later, the judge gave jury instructions ripped right from the Stand Your Ground statute. And now the idiot juror B37 is going on television talking about how Zimmerman had a right to stand his ground, so what do I know? It’s my fault for even thinking for a second that the people of Florida could apply their own laws correctly.
So, I agreed to go onto HuffPost Live and debate whether Stand Your Ground laws are essentially a “license to kill.” Interestingly, one of the people on the panel was a Florida state representative who accepted the challenge of defending Florida’s statute….
First, here’s the segment. It’s me, attorney and talk radio host Eboni Williams, Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center’s John K. Roman, and Florida State Rep. Carlos Trujillo. I thought it was a really good spot.
I feel like lawyers rarely get to ask lawmakers in Florida what is wrong with the duty to retreat. I didn’t really get a great answer from Representative Trujillo, but I tried.
Trujillo used the example of a “law-abiding citizen” attacked in a mall. He said that in Florida, citizens shouldn’t have to “live in fear” from criminals.
I think the duty to retreat is often maligned by right-wingers. The duty to retreat only requires you to withdraw if you can do so reasonably and safely. Why? Because then people don’t die. It’s not about living in fear, it’s about not killing somebody unless you absolutely have to. Trujillo seemed okay with the result as long as the “attacker” or “criminal” dies, and others on the panel tried to remind him that assessing the “attacker” in these situations is not always easy.
But for me, I’d rather live in a state where nobody has to die. Not the “criminal,” not the “victim,” not the “law-abiding citizen,” not the “attacker.” Having a duty to retreat decreases the chances that anybody dies. And at what cost? Yes, sometimes a duty to retreat means that you’ll have to run away. Running away is thought to be “cowardly” in our society. But if you can safely and reasonably do so, you should run. IT WILL KEEP YOU ALIVE. You’re not Batman, you’re the guy standing there in hockey pads.
Interestingly, Williams said that, as a woman, she also didn’t think the duty to retreat was a good thing. Again, I feel this comes from a misapprehension of what “reasonably and safely” truly means. Duty to retreat doesn’t require you to try to run down a dark alley to evade an assailant who might be stronger and faster than you. It means that if you are in a crowded freaking mall, as Representative Trujillo suggested, and somebody attacks you, and it’s pretty easy get to the safety of a mall cop, you should do so… instead of saying “come at me bro” and opening fire in the middle of a goddamn mall.
Moving on from the philosophical underpinnings of Stand Your Ground, we talked about the law as applied. Towards that end, the following chart was prepared by Roman, and has been making its way around the internet these past two days. It shows the percentage that a killing will be found “justified” in Stand Your Ground states, depending on the race of the victim and the assailant, versus the standard in “white on white” crime:
First of all… Jesus Christ. People who can look at that chart and not see the racism in our society are either stupid, obtuse, or worse. I know this might be hard for some white people to understand, but black people aren’t inherently more dangerous than any other people. We’re not more genetically predisposed to violence. We don’t have special dimples in the back of our skulls. IT’S NOT REASONABLE TO BE MORE AFRAID OF BLACK PEOPLE AND THEN ACT OUT THAT PREJUDICE BY SHOOTING US TO DEATH.
But the clear spike in Stand Your Ground states certainly suggests that, as applied, Stand Your Ground is used to justify the murder of black and brown victims, more than anybody else.
Trujillo didn’t really have an answer to that, but what are you going to do? If you support Stand Your Ground, you are supporting something that is going to disproportionately lead to the death of black and brown people. There’s no real way around that.
But for what it’s worth, as I said on the segment, I’ve been able to follow the laws and enjoy my freedom all my life. And I’ve never needed to own a gun, and I’ve never needed to shoot anybody.