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WASHINGTON, Aug 13 2013 (IPS) - In the aftermath of a recent high-profile U.S. murder trial, several new studies have found that the controversial self-defence law at the heart of the case, known as “Stand Your Ground”, is being applied differently depending on defendants’ ethnicity.
The new statistics on this racial disparity have come out as the Stand Your Ground laws, which have been passed in nearly three-dozen U.S. states, have come under review at the state and federal level.
That includes in Florida, the location of the widely viewed trial of a “neighbourhood watch” volunteer named George Zimmerman, who was accused of the murder of an unarmed black teenager named Trayvon Martin.
Zimmerman’s acquittal last month, explained by some jurors as being based largely on the legality of his actions under Florida’s Stand Your Ground statute, outraged broad sections of the country.
The state-level “self-defence” statute was first introduced in 2005, and allows someone who feels threatened to use deadly force against an attacker without first trying to get away. For this reason, the law is also known as “No Duty to Retreat” and, by critics, “Shoot First”, and has been increasingly criticised for escalating rather than mitigating conflict.
Yet according to a new study by the Urban Institute, the application of this law has varied significantly according to the ethnic make-up of both the attacker and the victim.
The shooting of a black person by a white person, for instance, has been found to be justifiable under Stand Your Ground 17 percent of the time. On the other hand, the shooting of a white person by a black person has been found justifiable just slightly over one percent of the time.
In the states that have no such statute, white-on-black shootings were found to be justified about nine percent of the time.
“Stand Your Ground clearly has racial implication in communities of colour and black neighbourhoods,” Paul Graham, with the Ohio Organising Collaborative at the Centre for Community Change, a Washington-based advocacy group, told IPS.
“When you have this kind of disparity and this kind of inequality, it is a devastating blow for all communities.”
Another recent investigation, carried out by the Tampa Bay Times, a Florida newspaper, looked at some 200 Stand Your Ground cases and found that defendants who had killed a black victim went free 73 percent of the time. Yet defendants who killed a white victim went free just 59 percent of the time.
Since 2005, 31 other states have followed Florida’s lead in passing similar laws, while several others are reportedly considering similar legislation. On average, so-called justifiable homicide rose by about eight percent in states with Stand Your Ground laws, amounting to about 600 additional killings.
“We need to work towards building safe communities where all kids can grow up in prosperous environments and not be worried about being gunned down,” Graham says.
The Stand Your Ground laws were strongly pushed for by a few high-profile gun-rights groups here, in particular the National Rifle Association (NRA). In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin verdict, these groups have doubled down their support for these laws, including by suggesting that minorities stand the most to gain from such self-defence legislation.
“We all know why it’s come under fire right now, because of that one case in Florida, but that’s just a ruse for attacking self-defence in general,” Erich Pratt, communications director for Gun Owners of America, an advocacy group, told IPS.
“[Changing Stand Your Ground] would adversely affect minorities, if we say that they are not going to be able to defend themselves when they fear for their lives. That’s really what we are talking about.”
Indeed, the Tampa Bay Times study also found that black gunshot victims were more likely than whites to be carrying a weapon when they were killed and were more likely to be committing a crime, such as burglary, at the time of any altercation.
In addition, while blacks make up just 12 percent of the U.S. population, they constitute some 55 percent of its homicide victims, with the majority of those murders committed by other blacks.
Further, black youths have had a high success rate in arguing for justified homicide under Stand Your Ground law in “black-on-black” crimes.
However, there remains significant disparity in the success rate of justified homicide between white defendants and black defendants in white-on-black crimes.
“The bottom line is that it’s really easy for juries to accept that whites had to defend themselves against persons of colour,” said Darren Hutchinson, a law professor and civil rights law expert at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
This evident racial disparity is now strengthening national calls for investigations into Stand Your Ground laws and their application on the ground.
“[I]f a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario … both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different,” President Barack Obama said last month in unusually personal remarks following the Zimmerman acquittal.
“And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these Stand Your Ground laws, I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened?”
He continued: “And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.”
Since then, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, a government body, has started an investigation into these laws, while the Senate Judiciary Committee has also stated it would hold hearings on Stand Your Ground in September.
The Florida State Legislature will also be taking another look at the effect, benefits and consequences of the law this fall, the first such move it has made. Still, supporters are girding for a fight.
“I don’t expect that the legislature’s going to move one damn comma,” Matt Gaetz, chairperson of the Florida Criminal Justice Subcommittee and a supporter of the law, said recently. “If the members of the committee support changes, they will be proposed, but nobody can count on my vote.”
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