ABA Hears Stand Your Ground Testimony in Philadelphia
The American Bar Association heard public testimony in Philadelphia Thursday from activists, lawyers and public officials on Stand Your Ground laws. The forum was the third of four regional hearings the ABA is hosting to collect input for its national Stand Your Ground Task Force.
Most of the testimony in Philadelphia came from people opposed to the expanded self-defense laws, which have spread to nearly half the country over the past decade.
“These things seem like they should be common sense,” said Dorothy Johnson Speight, executive director of anti-violence group Mothers in Charge. “I’m trying to figure out why someone should have the right to take someone’s life without retreating.”
Twenty-four states have some form of Stand Your Ground law, which vary in language and application but are all based on the principle that a person whose life is threatened has the right to use deadly force in self-defense without without first attempting to retreat from an attacker.
Most of the measures prohibit prosecution or arrest of people determined to have acted under the law, and a number grant civil immunity to shooters as well.
The ABA previously held forums in Chicago and Dallas, and will hold a fourth in San Francisco Aug. 9. The organization’s goal is to review and asses the laws and examine their effects on public safety, individual liberties and the criminal justice system.
A major concern raised about Stand Your Ground laws is their disparate impact on minorities. A recent Tampa Bay Times study of close to 200 cases discovered that 73 percent of shooters went free when the victim was black, while 59 percent went free after shooting a white person.
Nationwide, justifiable homicide rates vary widely by race — when a white shooter kills a black victim, the act is ruled justifiable 34 percent of the time. For black-on-white killings, the same is true in but 3 percent of incidents.
Troy Crichton of the Barristers’ Association of Philadelphia called the laws “a codification of the vigilante code.”
“People are frequently not correct about when deadly force is necessary,” added Elizabeth Avore, senior counsel for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Several opponents of Stand Your Ground also brought up last year’s Texas A&M study which found states that implemented the laws experienced a 7 to 9 percent increase in homicides, with no accompanying decrease in crime.
Voices in Favor
Only two speakers out of 13 gave testimony in favor of Stand Your Ground. David Green, director of Firearm Owners Against Crime, and Joshua Prince, a private attorney who focuses on firearm law, gave speeches about the inalienable right to self defense. “Police owe us no duty of protection,” Prince reminded the audience, citing Supreme Court precedent that law enforcement must answer to public, not individual, safety.
A number of speakers focused on the fact that Pennsylvania’s law is a relatively restrained one compared to other states, in that it prohibits shooting police officers, and disqualifies someone from using Stand Your Ground if their gun is not legally possessed or the person is otherwise engaged in illegal activity.
However, almost all speakers maintained that there were no cases where Pennsylvania’s previously existing self-defense laws wouldn’t have sufficed to exonerate a justifiable shooting. “It was a solution in search of a problem,” Dauphin County District Attorney Ed G. Marisco said.
Tweak to Self-Defense
Some more nuanced testimony came from Keir Bradford-Gray, a public defender in Philadelphia suburb Montgomery County. Bradford-Gray stated that while she is not in favor of Stand Your Ground laws as they exist, particularly because of their disparate effects on minorities, there are situations where she feels that traditional self-defense laws do not suffice.
The attorney cited two cases where people she defended had acted in apparent self-defense against would-be assailants they knew to be violent, but hadn’t yet threatened specific force in the particular circumstance. Both defendants were convicted.
“There are areas to tweak self-defense doctrine based on the known history of individuals,” she said.
Former Gov. Ed Rendell, who vetoed Pennsylvania’s Stand Your Ground bill before his successor signed it into law in 2011, had some of the harshest words for the spread of expanded self-defense rules. “It advances a shoot first, ask questions later mentality,” Rendell said. “A civilized society shouldn’t do this.”