It IS About Race: Study Finds Significant Racial Bias In ‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws


'Without the SYG law, it seems reasonable to predict that Zimmerman would not be able to demonstrate to a jury that the shooting was justified.' Image: Post-verdict Facebook meme

‘Without the SYG law, it seems reasonable to predict that Zimmerman would not be able to demonstrate to a jury that the shooting was justified.’ Image: Post-Verdict Facebook meme

After the stunning verdict in the George Zimmerman trial was announced, social media, as expected, exploded. Outrage was mixed with heated rationale for the verdict and, frankly, it got ugly. Threads practically screamed with vile comments, race baiting, insults, and fierce debates about whether or not this trial was, A. fair, B. an indictment of the “Stand Your Ground” (SYG) law, or C. a statement about race in America.

For those who went with choice “A”… what can I say? Go celebrate, raise a glass to the technicalities of law and fumbles of the prosecution. Those voting for choice “B”… YES, no doubt. SYG is a codified excuse for vigilante justice, often of the racist kind, and very arbitrary in its pendulum swings of interpretation. As for choice “C”… race. The great American debate. Not only have the Obama years made it clear, but reactions to this trial have underscored it: we are NOT a post-racial society. In accordance with this reality, there’s a strong suspicion that “Stand Your Ground” and racial bias have a link. Do they?

First of all, let’s get a bit of background: the law was originally called the “castle doctrine” and held that a person had the right to defend their “castle”; meaning, they didn’t have to retreat but could, in fact, use deadly force against an intruder in their home. During the 1980s, several states adapted the law, changing the name to “Make My Day” (Dirty Harry, anyone?) and in 2005, Florida took the law even further with “Stand Your Ground”:

Florida’s law states “a person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felon.

Laws in at least 21 states allow that there is no duty to retreat an attacker in any place in which one is lawfully present.  (Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and West Virginia.)  At least nine of those states include language stating one may “stand his or her ground.”  (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.) [Source: National Conference of State Legislatures]

That’s the foundation of the law; clearly interpretation can be found in between the lines and often is. The question is, has the law helped make people safer? Kept their homes safer? Kept them alive in situations in which they felt threatened? And has there been or is there a racial component in how the law is implemented, as many believe is the case with Trayvon Martin’s death and the acquittal of the man who killed him?

A Frontline piece titled Is There Racial Bias in “Stand Your Ground” Laws? discussed a study done last year by PBS Frontline on those very questions, focused particularly on how murder convictions and the racial make-up of victims have been impacted by the SYG. What they found was, to put it bluntly, that “Stand Your Ground” makes it easier for blacks to be murdered without anyone being convicted of the crime. From Frontline:

Since Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, invoked the stand-your-ground defense, these laws have been defended by gun rights groups for empowering civilians. They’ve also been criticized by civil rights groups for encouraging violence and being racially biased.

A recent study suggests that laws may lead to more deaths. According to a June study [pdf] by researchers at Texas A&M University, the rates of murder and non-negligent manslaughter increased by 8 percent in states with Stand Your Ground laws. That’s an additional 600 homicides per year in the states that have enacted such laws.

The study, which analyzed FBI crime data nationwide from 2000-2009, says it could mean either that more people are using lethal force in self-defense, or that situations are more likely to escalate to the use of violence in states with the laws. “Regardless, the study said, “the results indicate that a primary consequence of strengthening self-defense law is increased homicide.”  [Emphasis added.]

Sound like a recent case on trial? And given the clear backlash to the law since Martin’s murder and, certainly, since the verdict came in, isn’t it time to discuss the fact that the law contributes to an increase in murder and manslaughter as opposed to a decrease? That cannot be the intent of anyone involved with SYG and yet… the law persists on the books of 28 states. And, let’s be clear, the racial component is something to note:

[John] Roman [senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center] also found that Stand Your Ground laws tend to track the existing racial disparities in homicide convictions across the U.S. — with one significant exception: Whites who kill blacks in Stand Your Ground states are far more likely to be found justified in their killings.In non-Stand Your Ground states, whites are 250 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than a white person who kills another white person; in Stand Your Ground states, that number jumps to 354 percent. [Emphasis added]

Those percentages are staggering in both cases, but 354 PERCENT?

Roman’s analysis of the FBI crime data breaks it down even further:

If there are types of homicide where shootings are often justified, SYG laws are reasonable. However, if there are few circumstances where shootings are justified, those laws will impede justice.

We turned to the Supplemental Homicide Report (SHR) maintained by the FBI, which includes all reported homicides in the US, including justifiable homicides, to determine what types of cases—and how often—civilian use of deadly force was justified.

We combed the data to identify homicides which resemble the known facts from the Trayvon Martin case—cases in which there was a single victim and a single shooter (both of whom were civilians and strangers) and in which the victim was killed by a handgun. We identified 4,650 of these cases in the SHR. Of these, just 10.9 percent (506) were ruled to be justifiable homicides.

However, we note that these numbers vary by whether a state is a SYG state. In SYG states, 13.6% of homicides under these circumstances are found to be justified. In non-SYG states, only 7.2 percent are justified.

We then looked for a scenario where homicides are justified more than half the time. It turns out that the scenario with the highest probability of being a justified homicide is much like the Martin case—a single, White civilian handgun shooter who is a stranger to (and older than) the Black victim. But even then, the shooting is found to be justified less than half the time. [Source. Emphasis added]

As I’m writing this, I’m reflecting on the number of very heated voices, post-verdict, that stated without a shred of equivocation that there was, and is, nothing racial about the Martin case, even going so far as to state that if Trayvon Martin had not been black the case wouldn’t even have gone to trial (reverse racism is always handy to throw around in these circumstances). This meme has been propagated by Zimmerman’s brother and others involved with the case, as well as countless commenters who apparently cannot face the fact of our not-post-racial country. Even on the night of the verdict, some were calling Martin a ‘thug’ and asserting that he was the aggressor, despite facts that clearly show Zimmerman stalked the boy without cause or provocation and “escalated to the use of violence” as stated in the Frontline piece. The Martin/Zimmerman case was, in fact, a true exemplification of the law’s weaknesses.

But let’s look specifically at the very notorious state of Florida. Known for its sharply conservative climate and its controversial decisions about a great many things, from religion, porn, pot, politics, and, of course, race, the issue of SYG has taken center stage since the Martin killing. Roman extrapolates:

Finally, we searched the SHR data for cases that matched all the facts of the Martin case (including ages and races). Out of 70,000 cases, we find that the homicides similar to the Martin case occurred just 23 times in five years. Of those 23 cases, only 9 (39 percent) were ruled to be justifiable homicides. Since the overwhelming majority of shootings are not justified, it seems clear that SYG laws reduce the chance for justice by moving the burden of proof from the shooter to law enforcement.

In the Martin case, since Florida is a SYG state, the law strongly favors Zimmerman. It appears as though local law enforcement [with SYG] will not find probable cause that Zimmerman’s shooting was unjustified. By contrast, without the SYG law, it seems reasonable to predict that Zimmerman would not be able to demonstrate to a jury that the shooting was justified. Thus, history suggests Florida’s Stand Your Ground law will lead to a miscarriage of justice. [Source]

As it did for Trayvon Martin. John Roman wrote that piece over a year ago; little did he know how prescient his words would be. Or, then again, maybe he did.

Time to stand up and take down “Stand Your Ground.”


Clarification: The PBS/Frontline study referenced above was conducted over a year ago; at the time, lawyers for George Zimmerman were relying on SYG for their defense, hence, John Roman’s quote above. By the time of the trial, the defense strategy had been changed to the standard “self-defense.” However… as stated in the article linked below on the issue of race and SYG:

George Zimmerman killed a 17-year-old boy he’d stalked for being ‘suspicious’ (a black teenager in a neighborhood where there’d been some problems… also known as “racial profiling”), provoked an altercation, shot the boy to death and then got off scott-free based on the parameters of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Yes, Zimmerman’s lawyer dropped that particular defense and went with plain old “self defense” instead (getting out of your car and following someone is, by definition, not “standing” your ground) but the very existence of the law pollutes the way people view murder “unavoidable” shootings. Particularly when a black person is the victim.

Related piece:  Florida Justice: Black Domestic Violence Victim Gets 20 Years For Firing Warning Shot, Hurting No One; Zimmerman Walks