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No surprise at all: ‘stand your ground’ defendants more likely to prevail if the victim is black

The Tampa Bay Times has published its investigation of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which has received wide attention because of the alleged murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, who cited this as his defense for shooting the unarmed teenager. In its review of the numerous cases in which it was invoked, the newspaper found its has been cited in many ways that no one expected. This law needed a thorough review, and the findings by the Times are not surprising. The demographics of the defendant (and victim) are relevant.

Cases with similar facts show surprising — sometimes shocking — differences in outcomes. If you claim “stand your ground” as the reason you shot someone, what happens to you can depend less on the merits of the case than on who you are, whom you kill and where your case is decided.

…In the most comprehensive effort of its kind, the Tampa Bay Times has identified nearly 200 “stand your ground” cases and their outcomes. The Times identified cases through media reports, court records and dozens of interviews with prosecutors and defense attorneys across the state.

Here is the outline of the “stand your ground” law:

In 2005, Florida legislators made it easier to claim self-defense by rewriting the law so that a person “has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground.”

• Anyone who is not engaged in illegal activity and is in a place where he or she has the right to be can claim self-defense in using violence against another. Police cannot arrest someone with a reasonable claim. No arrest does not mean a person will never be charged, but it can affect how thoroughly police investigate.

• In most homicides, prosecutors review case details and decide whether charges should be filed. In self-defense cases, prosecutors will not charge if they feel they cannot refute the person’s assertion of self-defense. Once a charge is filed, the case moves into the court system.

• The law requires a judge to hold a “stand your ground” immunity hearing if the defendant asks for one. At that hearing, prosecutors must convince a judge there is enough evidence to go forward to trial. If they fail, a judge can grant immunity from prosecution. Either side can appeal a judge’s decision.

• If immunity is denied, defendants can seek a plea agreement or take their chances at trial, where they can still argue they had the right to stand their ground. Judges give jurors detailed instructions, saying they cannot convict just because a defendant did not retreat or because he or she killed an unarmed victim.

We are not a color-blind society by any stretch of the imagination, no matter how much people wish it to be, particularly in the Zimmerman/Martin case. For example:

• Those who invoke “stand your ground” to avoid prosecution have been extremely successful. Nearly 70 percent have gone free.

• 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.

• The number of cases is increasing, largely because defense attorneys are using “stand your ground” in ways state legislators never envisioned. The defense has been invoked in dozens of cases with minor or no injuries. It has also been used by a self-described “vampire” in Pinellas County, a Miami man arrested with a single marijuana cigarette, a Fort Myers homeowner who shot a bear and a West Palm Beach jogger who beat a Jack Russell terrier.

• People often go free under “stand your ground” in cases that seem to make a mockery of what lawmakers intended. One man killed two unarmed people and walked out of jail. Another shot a man as he lay on the ground. Others went free after shooting their victims in the back. In nearly a third of the cases the Times analyzed, defendants initiated the fight, shot an unarmed person or pursued their victim — and still went free.

You can read the newspaper’s report in full here, documenting the inconsistencies found across the state.

By the way, George Zimmerman returned to Seminole County Jail in Sanford, Fla., over the weekend, turning himself in after a judge revoked his bail.

Less than six weeks ago, Zimmerman walked out of Seminole County Courthouse a free man on bail, preparing to live the next year or two of his life in hiding as he awaited the beginning of his high profile murder trial for the death of Martin.

But following a contentious hearing Friday in which the court learned Zimmerman and his wife Shelly had allegedly tried to hide from the court the more than $135,000 in cash they had amassed in donated legal funds, Circuit Court Judge Kenneth Lester ordered him back in jail with 48 hours.

Zimmerman’s attorney Mark O’Mara said Zimmerman’s credibility will now be a major issue which he will have to address.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding