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Thursday October 30th 2014

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We Are Trayvon: Stand Your Ground

Stand Your Ground: The Law

The phrase “stand your ground” was used repeatedly during the media coverage of the teen’s death and subsequent legal rollercoaster that ended in Zimmerman’s acquittal. Florida law was the center of much of the debate during the trial and is the focus of protests aimed at reforming what many perceive to be a broad and unevenly applied piece of legislation.

Florida’s “Stand Your Ground Law”—the first of its kind in the U.S.—originated as Senate Bill 436. National Rifle Association (NRA) lobbyist Marion Hammer and her group lobbied heavily for it. The bill was also backed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative policy group that pushed cookie-cutter legislation, including Stand Your Ground-style laws, in multiple states.

The bill passed through the Florida Senate and House. Governor Jeb Bush signed the bill into law on April 26, 2005 with Hammer by his side; the law went into effect on October 1, 2005.

The law created two new statutes and amended two existing self-defense statutes that detailed when a person is justified in using deadly force against another person to protect themselves or others. Most importantly, the bill eliminated the long-standing duty of a person to first attempt to retreat from a situation before using deadly force. It also expanded the right to defend oneself using deadly force outside of one’s home to “any other place where he or she has a right to be,” as long as that person is not engaged in a crime at the time.

Under previous self-defense laws, a person had a responsibility to first attempt to retreat from a conflict before resorting to the use of deadly force. The Castle Doctrine was the exception to the “duty to retreat” rule in that a person was considered justified in using deadly force against an intruder in their home if they believed the intruder intended to kill or inflict “great bodily harm” upon them. Stand Your Ground eliminated the duty to retreat tradition when faced with what a person perceives to be an attempt to kill or seriously injure them.

Interestingly, possibly confusingly to some, is the section of the “stand your ground” law that addresses being other places than one’s home. That section states that “a person who is not engaged in 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…”

Perhaps the most critical aspect of the Stand Your Ground legislation is the immunity it gives to persons who have used deadly force if the force is considered justifiable. The law stipulates that law enforcement agencies are not legally permitted to arrest a person unless their investigation reveals that, “probable cause exists showing that the force that was used was unlawful.” To be considered unlawful, the use of force must fall outside of the broad parameters the law sets for persons holding “reasonable fear of imminent peril.” The law also protects from criminal prosecution and civil action when force was legally justifiable.

Stand Your Ground: In Practice

The Tampa Bay Times maintains a list of “stand your ground” cases throughout Florida. At present, in the nearly 200 cases The Times has analyzed, 40 convictions have been made, 73 deaths have been ruled justified, and decisions are pending in 20 cases.

The Times has found that 68 percent of “stand your ground” cases go unpunished, meaning the defendant is not charged, charges are dismissed by a prosecutor, the defendant is granted immunity by a judge, or is acquitted by a jury.

Using The Times’ current numbers, approximately 70 percent of the victims—those killed or injured—in “stand your ground” cases have been unarmed; 91 percent of the accused have been armed, and 70 percent of the accused were armed with guns.

A major growing concern surrounding the law is the irregular way it is applied. The Times’ found that defendants claiming “stand your ground” are more likely to prevail if the victim is black. Seventy-three percent of those who killed a black person faced no penalty compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white person.

Stand Your Ground: Zimmerman Case

The Sanford Police Department’s decision to initially not arrest George Zimmerman created an outcry that resulted in Governor Rick Scott appointing a special prosecutor to the case who later charged the neighborhood watchman with second-degree murder.

When it came to the trial, however, Zimmerman’s attorneys steered clear of using the words “stand your ground” when constructing Zimmerman’s defense, and opted out of a pre-trial hearing which could have allowed the defendant to avoid a jury trial altogether, if the judge would’ve ruled in their favor.

Jury instructions from the judge included language from the law. When considering whether Zimmerman was guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter, jurors were instructed that if 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.”

Stand Your Ground: Local Connection

State Senator Durell Peaden (R-Crestview), whose district comprised Escambia, Santa Rosa, and a portion of Okaloosa County, sponsored the Stand Your Ground bill, SB 436. State Rep. Greg Evers (R-Baker), who also represented parts of the same three counties, co-sponsored the House version.

The poster child for “stand your ground” was James Workman of Pensacola, who one month before the bill was introduced in December 2004 fatally shot Rodney Cox in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan. The shooting occurred in an RV where Workman and his wife were staying while their home was being repaired. Cox entered the RV after wandering onto the Workman’s property and being instructed by Workman to leave.

After several months of considering the case, State Attorney Bill Eddins decided not to arrest Workman or charge him with murder. Unbeknownst to Workman, so he told CNN in May 2012, Rep. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala), another co-sponsor of the House bill, invoked Workman’s case, saying it shouldn’t take months for a citizen to know if they will be charged with a crime when they were defending their property.