Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law was not invoked by the defense at either the trial of George Zimmerman or, more recently, Michael Dunn. But the mindset was present in both cases, and raises some troubling questions about what constitutes self-defense.
In the Zimmerman case, the defendant was acquitted of shooting an unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin, in the chest, arguing that Martin had attacked him. Zimmerman was acquitted.
In the Dunn case, the defendant’s behavior was even more sketchy. He had pulled into a gas station, and – annoyed by what he called the “rap crap” emanating from another car there – asked the four teenagers inside to turn it down. Dunn said 17-year-old Jordan Davis then threatened him and had a shotgun, and Dunn then shot into the car. Prosecutors said there was no threat (there was, in fact, no gun in the boys’ SUV) and merely shot 10 bullets into the car because he didn’t like the loud music.
Davis was killed, and Dunn was convicted of attempted murder of the three surviving teens. The jury deadlocked over whether Dunn was guilty of fist-degree murder of Davis. From a practical standpoint, it may not matter as much – Zimmerman is free, and has spent the time doing such bizarrely inappropriate activities as posing for a photo with a gun manufacturer and getting into a fight with his girlfriend, while Dunn already faces up to 60 years in prison for the attempted murder convictions. But the mindset, that “threat” is in the eye of the shooter, endures.
Florida law says someone does not have an obligation to retreat if he or she “reasonably” believes his or her life is at stake, even if there is no actual threat. (The “Stand Your Ground” law was not specifically invoked at either trial, but the Florida self-defense statute, complete with that language, was read to the jury.) How far does one take that? State of mind is indeed a reasonable factor to consider. But putting the onus on the prosecution to prove that the defendant was not reasonably in fear for his or her life merely enables racism, xenophobia and any other kind of fear-based in bias.
Would a middle-aged white man be more “reasonable” in believing that four black teenagers were a threat, than if the ages and races were reversed? That’s not stated in the law, of course, but juries, which insert their own experiences and fears into their judgments, might think so. A woman has a far greater chance of being raped than any man of any race has of being murdered. Would that make it OK for a woman walking alone to attack or shoot a man walking past her – especially if the man were of the same race, since most rapes are intra-racial?
The problem with the standard of “reasonable” is that it isn’t reasonable at all. It puts law behind emotion and human bias.
In Virginia, current law allows
farmers to shoot dogs which run after their chickens, and officers are actually
required to kill a dog caught going after someone’s poultry. The state legislature recently cleared a bill that would soften that law, giving urban areas (where
more people, it seems, are raising chickens) the right to ease such absolutist
death penalties. If Virginia can do more to protect dogs, perhaps Florida could
do more to protect people.