Some say that George Zimmerman got away with murder. Yet those outraged by his acquittal would be hard pressed to find fault in the verdict of his trial. Zimmerman was justly acquitted according to Florida law. But is this the kind of justice we can accept?
With this question, Dr. Timothy Horner and DeVon Jackson began Vote Your Ground, a forum for students and faculty to discuss Stand Your Ground laws last Wednesday, September 18th in the speakers’ corner of Falvey. The forum focused on the laws in Florida, but also explored the sentiments and attitudes behind similar Stand Your Ground laws adopted by more than 30 other states, including Pennsylvania.
To help us understand these attitudes, Dr. Horner first discussed the history and evolution of Stand Your Ground. The fundamentals of Stand Your Ground come out of the Castle Doctrine, whichprovides for the use of force, including deadly force, against intruders into one’s home. This recalls the concept of a man’s home as his castle, first parsed out in English Common Law in the 17th Century. Florida Statute 776.013, a section of Stand Your Ground, expands on the principle of this doctrine:
“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.” (emphasis added)
Stand Your Ground essentially denotes one’s personal space as his or her castle. If one’s space is threatened, he or she has no duty to retreat, and can respond with the force they believe to be necessary.
Not only does this greatly expand upon the castle doctrine, this Florida law gives the person who used defensive force an extraordinary amount of power in court, since the application of the law depends on this person’s own perception of threat. This person need only create a scenario where threat is believed reasonable to a judge, and he is protected by this Stand Your Ground law from persecution.
Ideally, the jury, benefiting from a collective, non-biased perspective would be able to serve justice, and judge the reasonableness of these threats. However, what if the judge and jury are also soaked in a culture of threat and fear, colored by their own subconscious perceptions, or preconceived notions deeply ingrained by the society in which they live? And this is where race enters the picture.
It is not that Stand Your Ground is an inherently racist law. Nor is it applied overwhelmingly for the benefit of or against a specific race. Dr. Horner and Mr. Jackson showed us a list of several cases in which Stand Your Ground was invoked, with no pattern emerging.
“Stand Your Ground is not a law that allows white people to kill black people,” Dr. Horner was quick to note.
But a problem does emerge when a judge or jury is the product of a similar culture of fear and threat, operating in the legacy of race inequality in this country. It colors our perceptions, and affects our understanding of a reasonable threat.
This article has not touched upon the many additional details and ambiguities that surrounded the Zimmerman case. It is important to note that Stand Your Ground was not explicitly invoked by the defense, yet the laws remain critical to all Florida self-defense laws with which Zimmerman constructed his case. Yet Trayvon’s voice is absent from this narrative, leaving only Zimmerman’s to be judged. And it was a narrative that easily fed into our feeling of the threat posed by young black males. This fear is one that is certainly not rational, but prevails nevertheless because of the culture in which we live and the history of inequality and violence that supports it. If the law depends upon one’s own perception of threat and reasonable cause, how can there be justice when the judge and jury are partial to the culture of threat and fear which creates this individual perception? This is the problem created by Stand Your Ground, especially as it is written in Florida.
So where does that leave us? How do we as Villanovans respond?
“We wanted to have this forum to give students and faculty a chance to discuss the Zimmerman trial since it was such an important case which occurred over the summer,” said DeVon Jackson. “It is our responsibility to know what is going on so that we are not caught by surprise when things like this happen in our own communities and so that we can be proactive in examining Stand Your Ground laws.”
As a community, we must first be informed about Stand Your Ground and the issues which surround it, so that we can be more conscious of our own perceptions of threat and those of others. With this knowledge we can encourage a critical examination of Stand Your Ground and the ways in which it fails to serve or could better serve justice. We can also use this understanding of self-defense to challenge and question relevant issues on our own campus, such as the possible new direction of our own Public Safety. Pennsylvania also has a Stand Your Ground law, yet is has more provisions on the qualification of reasonable threat as it does for proportionality of force. You can find the full text of this law here: http://www.legis.state.pa.us/WU01/LI/LI/CT/HTM/18/00.005.005.000..HTM
Please continue this important discussion on Stand Your Ground and self defense below in the comments!
By Elena Giannella ’15