Stand Your Ground

Citing George Zimmerman's Acquittal As a Reason to Repeal 'Stand Your Ground' Laws Is a Non Sequitur

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Video via The Orlando Sentinel

Today Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin's mother,  said she believed Florida's "stand your ground" self-defense law "assisted the person who killed my son to get away with murder." She did not explain how, which is hardly surprising, since George Zimmerman's defense was not based on the absence of a duty to retreat for people attacked in public places. Rather, it was a classic self-defense claim that could have been successful in any state. Fulton nevertheless insists "we have to change these laws so people don't get away with murder."

It is not hard to understand why a grieving mother might want to give her son's death some meaning by tying it to a broader cause, no matter how illogical the connection. But the leaders of the National Bar Association (NBA), the African-American lawyers' group that sponsored the event in Miami at which Fulton spoke, surely know better. They nevertheless are throwing their support behind a campaign to repeal "stand your ground" laws, citing Martin's shooting as justification. "Stand your ground laws must fall," says NBA President John E. Page. "It is time to stand up—stand up against 'stand your ground' laws and stand up in the memory of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, and so many others whose killings were carried out by gun violence and justified by these senseless laws. We must not allow anyone to succumb to violence at the hands of vigilantes who devalue human life."

When The Miami Herald's Marc Caputo pointed out that Zimmerman could have successfully used exactly the same defense before Florida's "stand your ground" law was enacted in 2005, Page replied, "Why do you need the law then? There is a common-law right to protect yourself." But since that common-law right was all Zimmerman needed to be acquitted, why is Page citing his case as an example of the injustices caused by "stand your ground" laws? Page's response is tantamount to admitting that his publicity campaign is based on a lie.

The shooting of Jordan Davis, which Page also mentioned, seems like a more promising example. Davis, a black teenager, was a passenger in a Dodge Durango on which Michael David Dunn, a middle-aged white man, fired at a Jacksonville gas station last year. Dunn had asked Davis to turn down the loud music playing on the SUV's stereo, which led to an argument that ended in Davis' death. Dunn claimed he saw someone aim a shotgun at him from a window of the vehicle, although police did not find any weapons. This is a case where the absence of a duty to retreat might be important, since Dunn arguably could have left the gas station instead of drawing his gun. But it is a bit premature to say that Dunn's killing of Davis was "justified" by the "stand your ground" law, since he was charged with first-degree murder the day after the shooting and has not been tried yet.

Bizarrely, the NBA statement also mentions Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old girl who was killed by gunfire at a Chicago park in January. The suspects, 18-year-old Michael Ward and 20-year-old Kenneth Williams, told police they mistook Pendleton's friends for members of a rival gang. It is true, though not widely recognized, that Illinois imposes no duty to retreat on people attacked in public places. But unless Ward and Williams plan to claim they shot Pendleton in self-defense after she attacked them, it is hard to see what "stand your ground" has to do with this case.

Enough with the phony examples. If critics of "stand your ground" laws can find cases where people really did get away with murder because of the changes made to Florida's self-defense law in 2005, they should talk about those. When they say "stand your ground" laws should be repealed to honor the memories of Trayvon Martin and Hadiya Pendleton, they are literally talking nonsense.

And yes, it is still nonsense if you cite the jury instructions or the interview with Juror B37, neither of which shows that Zimmerman's acquittal hinged on his utterly irrelevant right to stand his ground while he was pinned to it and pummeled.