(Mint Press) – One year ago yesterday, George Zimmerman – a 28-year-old self-appointed neighborhood watch coordinator — shot and killed Trayvon Martin — a 17-year-old unarmed African-American boy that was walking home from visiting the grocery store at Sanford, Fla. While this case has stirred racial passions and cries of outrage about the manner this case was handled, at its core is the ethics of “Stand Your Ground” laws.
Thirty-six states currently have a version of the “Castle doctrine” — in which a person has no obligation to retreat when their home is attacked — or “Stand Your Ground” — in which a person has no legal obligation to retreat from anywhere he is lawfully entitled to be. In Florida, the law has caused self-defense claims to triple, and has led to a successful defense strategy in the state in which a person can shoot someone and claim self-defense.
As the shooter can claim he felt threatened and that his “personal space” was violated, it can be validly argued that the shooter was exercising “Stand Your Ground” — particularly in light of no witnesses to the shooting.
The idea that this law can be used to justify homicide has driven millions to protest the seemingly inhumanity of the legislation and to bring about justice and relief for those slighted.
On Feb. 5, on what would have been Trayvon’s 18th birthday, 70 people turned out for an anti-violence rally in Sanford. Those that gathered called for an end of the shootings that seem to be plaguing the streets of not just Sanford, but every community across the nation.
“We want peace and we want unity. That’s something Trayvon Martin and his family look down and said, ‘This is the goal worth fighting for,’” said Benjamin Crump, the Martin family attorney.
On Feb. 9, a “Day of Remembrance Community Peace Walk and Forum” was held in Miami. The event, focused on “motivating youth on peaceful conflict resolutions instead of gun violence,” was attended by Academy Award-winner Jamie Foxx and by the comedian Cedric the Entertainer.
On Tuesday, Trayvon’s parents held a Million Hoodies Candlelight Vigil in New York City’s Union Square. Trayvon was wearing a hoodie when he was killed — a fact that Geraldo Rivera repeatedly pointed to being a factor in Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon. Communities across the nation were expected to host similar events as well.
The government’s deaf ear
Despite national protests and shows of support, little is being done to actually change “Stand Your Ground.”
On Feb. 22, a 19-member task force commissioned by Gov. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) to study the state’s 2005 self-defense law stated that it found no reason to change the statute. The Governor’s Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection found that “the Task Force concurs with the core belief that all persons, regardless of citizenship status, have a right to feel safe and secure in our state. To that end, all persons who are conducting themselves in a lawful manner have a fundamental right to stand their ground and defend themselves from attack with proportionate force in every place they have a lawful right to be.”
The task group also recommended setting standards for neighborhood watches, providing more training to law enforcement agencies of what constitutes self-defense and recommending to the state’s Supreme Court the 2010 case of Patterson v. State as precedent to allow immunity for those claiming self-defense.
Florida defense attorney Mitch Stone told CBS News he is not surprised by this decision. “We are a state that is very interested in the Second Amendment. A lot of people here carry guns and are adamant that nothing should be done to change that, in any way, shape or form.”
The Florida law and dozens crafted since 2005 were created by influence and lobbying of the National Rifle Association (NRA). For many of these laws, they replace existing laws that required the attacked to seek self-defense only as a last resort. These new, Florida-style laws allow bodily harm or deadly force to be used in defense — regardless if the victim is in mortal danger or not. Only the perception of threat is needed.
Since the Trayvon Martin shooting, no state has stricken down or rolled back its “Stand Your Ground” law. However, Minnesota’s governor vetoed a proposed “Stand Your Ground” law in March 2012.
“It’s a philosophical debate we have been having for a hundred years,” says Ekow Yankah, a professor of law at New York’s Cardozo School of Law. “Should I have to retreat if someone is threatening me?”
In Florida, State Sen. Christopher L. Smith (D-31st Dist.) proposed that the law be amended to require a duty to retreat, if possible, before the use of deadly force.
Since its introduction in December, it has yet to leave committee.
A secondary, but equally important issue the Trayvon Martin shooting exposed is that of racial profiling. Zimmerman’s defense revolves around the fact that he incorrectly profiled Trayvon as a threat, and the Sanford police’s response after the shooting reflected the idea that Trayvon was a potential vandal or burglar, instead of being simply a high school junior visiting his father’s fiancee.
The 112th Congress concluded without a vote on the End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA) which would have offered police officers training in avoiding responses based on stereotypes and unreliable assumptions. The Senate hearing for this bill, however, was the first time racial profiling was discussed at the Capitol in over a decade.
Laura Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, wrote about the fears she has for her son: “We cannot be satisfied with legal equality when for many of us, it is of limited value in the face of our actual day-to-day experience. Unless Americans work together to end the practice of racial profiling – not just in law enforcement but in the larger social fabric – the precautions I and many other parents of color take may never be enough.”
However, for Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mother, this is less an issue about race and more an issue of social justice. As she told the Washington Post, “I would like to ensure that this does not happen to somebody else’s child. I want them to take this case and use this case as an example to stand up and try to prevent this from happening to anybody else. I wouldn’t want anybody to go through what I’ve gone through in the last year.…”
“It’s really difficult to try to process what happened in my mind to try to help, not only other children, but my other son,” she continued. “I would like to have some type of remedy to solve this, to try to prevent this from reoccurring. I believe that death is unavoidable but violent crimes are.”
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