On July 12, 2013, the Honorable Judge Debra S. Nelson addressed the jury in the second-degree murder trial of George Zimmerman in Florida and read her instructions to the jury (pdf). They included the following:
In deciding whether George Zimmerman was justified in the use of deadly force, you must judge him by the circumstances by which he was surrounded at the time the force was used. The danger facing George Zimmerman need not have been actual; however, to justify the use of deadly force, the appearance of danger must have been so real that a reasonably cautious and prudent person under the same circumstances would have believed that the danger could be avoided only through the use of that force. Based upon appearances, George Zimmerman must have actually believed that the danger was real.
If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony ...
If in your consideration of the issue of self-defense you have a reasonable doubt on the question of whether George Zimmerman was justified in the use of deadly force, you should find George Zimmerman not guilty.
Nelson’s jury instructions mirrored Florida Statute 776.012, which describes the justifiable use of force:
(1) A person is justified in using or threatening to use force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force. A person who uses or threatens to use force in accordance with this subsection does not have a duty to retreat before using or threatening to use such force.
(2) A person is justified in using or threatening to use deadly force if he or she reasonably believes that using or threatening to use such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony. A person who uses or threatens to use deadly force in accordance with this subsection does not have a duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground if the person using or threatening to use the deadly force is not engaged in a criminal activity and is in a place where he or she has a right to be.
The law was based on a legal precept called the “castle doctrine,” which does not require a person with a gun to retreat in the face of danger, but most people know the law by its more famous nickname: “Stand your ground.”
The jury eventually acquitted Zimmerman of the murder of Trayvon Martin, and for three years, no state could pass a version of the law. It was politically toxic in the age of Black Lives Matter, and every state that tried to pass similar legislation failed.
But in the last few months, under Republican legislatures, “Stand your ground” has made a quiet resurgence. In September, Missouri became the first state to enact it since Trayvon’s death. Iowa passed a sweeping gun measure April 13 that lets children handle firearms, allows citizens to sue cities that have “gun-free zones” and makes “Stand your ground” state law.
Now Florida is back at it again. According to the New York Times, the Sunshine State is set to strengthen its law by shifting the responsibility of proving immunity from the defendant to prosecutors. In short—in Florida, if you kill another person with a gun and claim that you were defending yourself, it is up to the state to prove that your use of force was not justified.
While this may seem like the usual conservative political gambit, there is something larger than the singular murder of Trayvon Martin at issue. “Stand your ground” laws have repeatedly been shown to be biased. In fact, study after peer-reviewed study on the issue shows that “Stand your ground” laws result in more homicides, and there is no doubt who benefits. Research shows that white men who shoot black men are more likely to benefit from such laws, which means that the resurrection of the castle doctrine will most likely mean that more white men will get away with killing black men.
In 2012 John Roman of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center conducted a study of “Stand your ground” data using FBI statistics. He found that states with “Stand your ground” laws reflect the same disparities in homicide convictions found in states without such laws—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.
Roman’s findings were still deemed inconclusive because he used data from 2005 to 2009 and had a very low number of comparable white-on-black homicides in “Stand your ground” states to compare (25). So Roman doubled back and completed a full, more thorough study and found that when the shooter is black, the homicide is justified in about 1 percent of cases in “Stand your ground” states. When a white person kills a black person in a “Stand your ground” state, the murder is justified 17 percent of the time (versus 11 percent in states without such laws).
More from Roman:
Finally, I tested whether these racial disparities remained when we controlled for whether the victim and perpetrator were strangers, the state where the incident occurred, the year of the homicide, and whether the shooting occurred in a SYG state. The racial disparities remain large and significant. In fact, the odds that a white-on-black homicide is ruled to have been justified is more than 11 times the odds a black-on-white shooting is ruled justified.
In another “Stand your ground” study that looked solely at cases in Florida, researchers discovered that between 2005 and 2013, Florida juries were twice as likely to convict the perpetrator of a crime against a white person as they were to convict in a crime against a person of color. “These results are similar to pre-civil rights era statistics, with strict enforcement for crimes when the victim was white and less-rigorous enforcement with the victim is non-white,” the report said.
The data is clear: “Stand your ground” laws benefit white people who kill blacks.
Maybe you’ve heard the story of Trevor Dooley, the 69-year-old man who said he was protecting his neighborhood, like another certain neighborhood watchman. Dooley went across the street to shoo away a skateboarder and got into a fight with David James, who was 28 years younger, 6 inches taller and 70 pounds heavier.
Dooley pulled out his gun, James lunged for it, they wrestled on the ground and James ended up dead. It sounds eerily similar to the Zimmerman case, except that a judge denied Dooley the use of the “Stand your ground” defense. There is one other big difference in the Dooley case: James, the dead man, was white, and Dooley was black.
This illustrates the larger point of the racially biased “Stand your ground” law. Despite all the statistical and mathematical evidence, America has yet to answer one simple scientific question:
Which weighs more: a dead black body or a little white lie?