Nearly Half of States Have "Stand Your Ground" Laws Like Florida's

Nearly Half of States Have "Stand Your Ground" Laws Like Florida's

 BIRD'S EYE VIEW

At least 22 states have self-defense laws relieving individuals of the "duty to retreat" from an attacker before using force against them anywhere they are legally allowed to be, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The laws in at least nine of those states, counting Florida, include "stand your ground" language specifically.

POLITICS AND LEADERSHIP

REACTION TO ZIMMERMAN RULING: Last week George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges stemming from his fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin on the night of Feb. 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida.

That verdict, handed down by a jury made up solely of women, none of them black, was seen by many in the African-American community as evidence of the racism that persists in the nation five years after electing its first black president yet less than a month after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act enacted to protect minorities from discrimination.

"I pretty well knew that Mr. Zimmerman was going to be let free, because if justice was blind of colors, why wasn't there any minorities on the jury?" said Willie Pettus of Richmond, Virginia.

Jeff Fard, a community organizer in Denver, said Martin would still be alive today if he weren't black.

"If the roles were reversed, Trayvon would have been instantly arrested and, by now, convicted," he said. "Those are realities that we have to accept."

Velma Henderson, a retired state employee who lives in a suburb of Chicago, likewise, said she was "heartbroken" but not surprised.

"The system is screwed. It's a racist system, and it's not designed for African-Americans."

That sentiment was also echoed in the signs held by parishioners at the St. Sabina Catholic church on the South Side of Chicago which read, "Trayvon Martin murdered again by INjustice system."

But legal analysts said the reason Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and the lesser charge of manslaughter, for that matter, was because, despite five weeks of trial and 56 witnesses, the state simply failed to prove he'd committed those crimes.

Among the difficulties the prosecution faced were a lack of certainty about many of the details of the case, such as whether it was Martin or Zimmerman yelling for help in the 911 call moments before the shooting, and the attraction of self-defense.

"Especially when cases are so gray, like this one was, self-defense really resonates because people can associate with being afraid," said Jude M. Faccidomo, former president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Prosecutors also faced an uphill battle in proving the "ill-will," "hatred" or "spite" needed for a conviction on second-degree murder, which required painting Zimmerman as a frustrated would-be cop who was fed up with crime in his gated community. And their job wasn't made any easier by Florida's 2005 Stand Your Ground law, freeing the state's residents of having to retreat before using lethal force in the face of a deadly threat.

But many of the witnesses called by the state actually seemed to help the defense, including a neighbor who claimed he saw Trayvon pin Zimmerman on the ground. And overall, Zimmerman's defense team was so successful in showing the state's lack of evidence in the case that Larry Handfield, a prominent African-American criminal defense lawyer based in Miami, said he thought a more diverse jury would have returned the same verdict.

"After seeing the quality of the evidence presented by the state, the diversity of the jury really didn't matter in the end," he said, although he added, "it would have helped the community in giving more credibility to the decision to acquit Zimmerman."

In addition to raising racial and legal issues, the case also drew attention once again to the stand your ground laws in place in Florida and 21 other states, just as it did immediately following the shooting. Florida's law states that "a person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony."

Zimmerman's lawyers didn't actually rely on the stand your ground law in defending him but the judge in the case cited it in her instructions to the jury just before they began their deliberations. And Sanford police didn't arrest Zimmerman until nearly two months after the shooting because of a provision in the law requiring police to have specific evidence refuting a self-defense claim before arresting someone claiming self-defense.

That provision "does a disservice to Floridians because it's so vague," said Florida Sen. Dwight Bullard (D) in an interview with CBS Miami.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder denounced "stand your ground" laws in a speech to the NAACP in Florida last week. But administration officials said there's not much the Justice Department can actually do about the laws because they're state rather than federal statutes. And last year, a task force in Florida headed by the lieutenant governor reviewed the state's "stand your ground" law but recommended only minor changes that required no action by the Legislature.

"The liberal activists tried to use that tragedy (the shooting death of Trayvon Martin) as an opportunity to take our rights as Americans," said Florida House Speaker Rep. Will Weatherford (R). "We stood our ground on Stand Your Ground."

A study of "stand your ground" laws commissioned last year by the private, nonprofit, nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research, however, found that the number of homicides significantly increased in states with "stand your ground" laws after the laws were enacted, raising serious doubts about one of the principal arguments made in support of such laws: that they make people safer. (STATELINE.ORG, NEW YORK TIMES, MIAMI HERALD, NBER.ORG, NATIONAL CONFERENCE OF STATE LEGISLATURES, WASHINGTON POST)

— Compiled by KOREY CLARK

EX-GOVS SUPPORT BROWN'S CA PRISON PLAN...SORT OF: A quartet of former California governors asked the U.S. Supreme Court to grant current Gov. Jerry Brown's (D) request to overrule a lower court's order for the state to release almost 10,000 prisoners from state lockups by December to quell consistent overcrowing. In a "friend of the court" brief filed by the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, the governors — Republicans George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger along with Democrat Gray Davis — said such a release "threatens the people of California with grave and irreparable harm from increased crime."

But the former governors did not exactly give Brown's prison realignment plan — which has placed thousands of inmates into county jails instead of state lockups — a ringing endorsement. While crime rates have gone down in major cities across the nation, they said, major crime is up significantly in California's metropolises. While nothing clearly links that increase to realignment, the governors' filing posited that "further releases of even more dangerous inmates will cause additional and irreparable harm." The Brown administration is awaiting a ruling on their request from Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. (SACRAMENTO BEE, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE).

CRIME & PUNISHMENT: WASHINGTON Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signs SB 5912, which among several things requires that drivers charged with a second drunken driving offense be arrested and booked into jail and that an interlock device be installed on their vehicle within five days of them being released from custody (TACOMA TRIBUNE, STATE NET). • RHODE ISLAND Gov. Lincoln Chafee (D) signs HB 5286, legislation that makes it a crime for anyone to knowingly receive, transport or possess a firearm that has had its serial number or other identifying marks altered or obliterated. Violators face up to five years in jail (PROVIDENCE JOURNAL).

EDUCATION: MISSOURI Gov. Jay Nixon (D) signs SB 75, which requires Show Me State school personnel to participate in an "active shooter and intruder" drill led by law enforcement officers and encourages them to teach first-graders a gun safety course sponsored by the National Rifle Association (NEWS TRIBUNE [JEFFERSON CITY]).

— Compiled by RICH EHISEN

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