Task Force Examines Racial Bias in ‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws
This is Part Three of a four-part series on Stand Your Ground laws. Please see Part One: ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law Isn’t Making Anyone Safer [Video], Part Two: ‘Stand Your Ground’ Fails to Deter Crime, Part Four: ‘Stand Your Ground’ Means More Homicides.
The death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman provided the headlines that brought Stand Your Ground laws into the spotlight. Zimmerman’s recent acquittal for shooting and killing an unarmed Martin last year has reignited national outrage about these laws and how they exacerbate our criminal justice system’s implicit bias against minorities.
The debate has hardened into two intractable factions: One side argues that the laws are dangerous, racist and unnecessary; the other claims they are merely a common-sense extension of the natural right of self-defense.
Some clarity could be on the way. In order to assess the utility and necessity of Stand Your Ground and report on “the potential effects these laws may have on public safety, individual liberties and the criminal justice system,” the American Bar Association launched a task force and is collecting input from interested parties around the nation.
“The task force has been holding hearings across the country since early this year to examine stand your ground from a legal perspective and ask tough questions about the consequences of these laws for public safety,” says Laurel G. Bellows, president of the American Bar Association.
Three hearings have been held so far, in Dallas, Chicago and Philadelphia, with a fourth scheduled for San Francisco in August. The task force has heard from prosecutors, defense attorneys, activists, academics, public officials and others. That testimony combined with other data and analysis will ultimately lead to a full report and policy recommendations.
The disparate impact of the laws on minorities, highlighted by the Martin case and supported by other analysis, is a key factor in the hearings.
“The so-called ‘Stand Your Ground’ statutes perpetuate violence and only serve to divide, rather than unite our country,” says Eva Paterson, president of the Equal Justice Society. “Not only do the laws encourage vigilante behavior, but they also feed off the implicit bias against black and brown folks, who are often viewed as ‘threatening’ based only on their skin color.”
Paterson, who will be testifying at the final ABA hearing in San Francisco, points out that people frequently react with bias against minorities without even realizing it.
Indeed, studies have shown that shooters are significantly more likely to go free under Stand Your Ground justification if the victim is black than if the victim is white, and white-on-black shootings are far more likely to be ruled justifiable than black-on-white shootings.
If people don’t understand the unfairness in how the laws are applied in practice, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins said during the hearing in Texas, “maybe you need to give up your bar card.”
“It is imperative that the tragedy that happened to the Martin family never happens again,” National Bar Association Vice President Ellen E. Douglass said in Chicago. “Leaving the question of what is ‘justifiable force’ unresolved opens the door to copycat acts.”
Gathering proper inputs and data is crucial to making good judgments about the laws, points out Mark Hoekstra, an economics professor at Texas A&M University who led a widely cited study released last year that found that states saw a measurable increase in homicides after passing Stand Your Ground laws, with no commensurate decrease in crime.
“We were trying to determine how people responded to incentives,” says Hoekstra, who participated in the first hearing in Dallas. “Economists are interested in these laws because they change the expected penalties associated with using lethal force and committing crimes.”
“Our view of it is that there’s a tradeoff between giving additional leeway to victims on one hand and minimizing loss of life on the other,” he says. “Voters and politicians are going to have to sort out how they want to balance those two things.”
Much of the testimony has come from people who are opposed to Stand Your Ground laws or find them unnecessary; however, there have been voices in favor of the laws as being important to empower citizens to defend themselves against attack.
A woman in Dallas told a terrifying tale of shooting her ex-husband after he stormed into her house and threatened her at gunpoint, and two speakers in Philadelphia gave several examples of real-life scenarios where crime victims needed to defend themselves or their homes in the absence of immediate police help. “Police owe us no duty of protection,” attorney Joshua Prince said in Philadelphia.
Others pointed out that the scenarios presented would all have been covered under existing Castle Doctrine and self defense laws, whether or not Stand Your Ground was in place.
Gathering data and voices pro and con, the ABA review should provide a comprehensive look at the state of Stand Your Ground in America. “When laws can mean life or death, objective review is essential,” ABA President Bellows says. “The task force could not be more necessary.”