First Hearing on Stand Your Ground Laws Focuses on Racial Profiling and Human Costs
Four days ago, Trayvon Martin would have celebrated his 18th birthday. Instead, as many remembered during the first of four public hearings on Stand Your Ground laws, he was shot and killed on Feb. 26, 2012 while walking to the store to buy Skittles. His alleged killer George Zimmerman initially evaded arrest because of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.
Friday’s southwest regional hearing, hosted by the American Bar Association’s Coalition on Racial and Ethnic Justice, launched a comprehensive legal study of Stand Your Ground laws – statutes in 32 states that have dramatically expanded the bounds of self-defense laws. The study is being led by the newly-created ABA National Task Force on Stand Your Ground Laws and will look at the statutes’ legal issues as well as impacts on the criminal justice system, individual liberties, public safety and groups that are traditionally marginalized.
“We need a road map as to how we should proceed as a nation,” Judge Michael Hyman, chair of the ABA Coalition on Racial and Ethnic Justice, said as the hearing opened.
Much of Friday’s discussion, which included testimony from local government officials, attorneys, victims’ advocates and Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, centered on racial profiling and the real-life consequences of Stand Your Ground laws.
“Until we respect life no matter what color the person is or where they come from, we will continue to have these committees and panels,” Watkins said. “Here were are in 2013 and we’re having this debate about the Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground laws, when the reality is that the majority of the people who end up on the wrong side of the bullet look like me.”
The use of deadly force to protect oneself inside one’s home, also known as the Castle Doctrine, has been allowed throughout the United States for many years. However, outside the home, there has typically been a “duty to retreat” from an attacker to avoid confrontation – as first dictated by English Common Law. That duty to retreat outside the home has now been removed in many states, and in some states, including Florida, invoking self-defense and “standing your ground,” creates immunity from criminal or civil prosecution.
“They’ve moved what used to be protecting your home to everywhere,” said Texas State Rep. Garnet Coleman.
While the intent of Stand Your Ground laws may be to allow people to better protect themselves and their loved ones, the reality is that the laws are used to reinforce racially-driven fears, Coleman and others claimed.
“Stand Your Ground laws put the burden on minority youth to affirmatively assert their inability to do harm in any situation,” said Warren Seay, Jr. a third-year law student at Southern Methodist University and a member of the DeSoto Independent School District Board of Trustees in DeSoto, Texas. “Stand Your Ground makes assumptions a legally justifiable reality.”
Christopher Jenks, a professor at the SMU Dedman College of Law and a former military prosecutor with the U.S. Army JAG Corps, noted that due to Stand Your Ground laws, there are “less restrictions imposed on U.S. service members when they return home then when they are in combat.”
Mark Hoestra, an associate professor of Economics at Texas A&M University, submitted testimony about a recent study he conducted that looks at whether lowering the legal threshold for the justifiable use of deadly force, as is the case with Stand Your Ground laws, deterred crime or increased homicide. Looking at 21 states that passed Stand Your Ground laws between 2000 and 2010, Hoekstra found that homicides increased by 8 percent – compared to states that had not adopted these laws.
“The critical question then, is whether the relative increase in homicide rates was caused by these laws, rather than by something else,” Hoestra wrote in his testimony. “Several factors lead us to conclude that it was caused by the laws…To put it bluntly, when you make it easier for people to use deadly force, you get more of it.”
Eric Davis, an attorney with the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, pointed out that with Stand Your Ground laws the distinction between who is the victim is blurry.
“The problem with Stand Your Ground laws is that you place in the hands of citizens the right to take someone’s life when there is a viable alternative,” Davis said.
All who spoke at Friday’s hearing urged the task force and all lawyers to carefully examine these laws in light of the human cost.
“We’re talking about taking a human life,” said Lynn Pride Richardson, chief Dallas County public defender. “We cannot take the loss of life lightly.”
The ABA National Task Force on Stand Your Ground Laws, led by co-chairs Leigh-Ann Buchanan and Jack Middleton, will hold three more regional public hearings, in Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco.
For material related to the Stand Your Ground hearing in Dallas, please click here.