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Stand your ground: A law or a license to kill?


Ordinarily, Feb. 26, 2012, would have been a normal day for Patricia A. Wallace, a noted Michigan-based clinical psychologist. She had left her practice and was driving home with her radio tuned as usual to the Rev. Al Sharpton show.

But as she listened, Wallace realized that the legislative monster she had fought against since before its adoption in 2005 was being discussed on the air–an African American Florida youth had been killed and the killer was using as a shield the notorious Stand Your Ground law.

Florida was the first state to adopt the law that governs residents’ use of deadly force as a defense. Gov. Jeb Bush signed Senate Bill 436 into law in April 2005, which expands and clarifies Floridians’ self-defense rights against violent attackers.

The law allows the justifiable use of force in home protection, or when there is a presumption of death or great bodily harm, or “if a person is presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm to himself or herself . . . if the person against whom the defensive force was used was in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering, or had unlawfully and forcibly entered, a dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle, or if that person had removed or was attempting to remove another against that person’s will from the dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle; and “the person who uses defensive force knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry or unlawful and forcible act was occurring or had occurred.”

At least 24 states have adopted some form of Stand Your Ground laws. This week a task force is meeting in Florida to evaluate that state’s law.

Wallace, a mental health professional and college professor with 34 years of clinical experience, was horrified at the news of the Trayvon Martin killing. It was the culmination of the legislative nightmare she had envisioned since the law’s inception, and she had written many abstracts about what she saw as its shortcomings.

By now the name Trayvon Martin is known all over the world. And to some extent, so is the name of his killer, George Zimmerman.

Seventeen-year-old Martin had been watching a basketball game at a friend’s apartment in Sanford, Fla. (he was visiting his father). During a break, he walked to a nearby store for candy and iced tea. Upon his return, 28-year-old self-appointed neighborhood watch captain, Zimmerman, began following the youth and reported to a 911 operator that the young man was acting suspiciously. (Much of Zimmerman’s conversation with the 911 operator can be heard on tape.) The operator asked Zimmerman if he was following the youth. Zimmerman said yes, and the operator cautioned him not to do that since police were on the way. However, Zimmerman persisted. There was an apparent confrontation during which someone could be heard calling for help. During the confrontation, Zimmerman shot and killed Martin.

Police didn’t initially arrest Zimmerman, which inflamed the situation surrounding the shooting. Supporters of Martin’s family rallied around and that support has spawned a national movement,

Wallace remembers arguing intensely to anyone who would listen that the Stand Your Ground law, combined with the existence of racial profiling, was a recipe for mayhem that was capable of causing legal homicide against people of color. Using such a law, an individual could easily kill someone and, with a decent attorney, get away with it. She pointed out that a Stand Your Ground law would further polarize the nation and expose flaws in the law in reference to simple cultural ethnic differences like body gestures, attire, response to questioning by an armed individual.

Already, Wallace stated, more killings of African Americans have been ruled justifiable homicides than the killings of members of any other ethnic group in the nation. However, most of these homicides are a result of Black-on-Black crime. Oddly, the law has been turned on its ear. Drug dealers and gang members often use the law to escape prosecution from murder on the basis of self-defense.

“This [law] is being used in many, many cases,” Florida state Senator Chris Smith told the Miami Herald. “This is being used with a prostitute killing her john, this is being used in gang fights, this is being used everywhere.”

Wallace contended that the law would aid powerful right-wing lobbies like the National Rifle Association.

She discussed the problem of fear.

Fear is generally described as a basic emotion occurring in response to an arousal or sensation that invokes a unique response within each individual. Fear of certain people or situations can be learned and is easily explained by theories of conditioning. The level or degree of fear an individual perceives is dependent on his or her personal history and the circuitry of the brain. Personal fear ranges in degrees from mild caution to extreme phobias that could cause disassociation reaction. Wallace’s concerns were that the array of ways that a claim of reasonable fear could be interpreted and processed provides extraordinary opportunities for misinterpretation.

Wallace believes that advocates of the Stand Your Ground laws would likely view standardization of the concept of reasonable fear favorably. They would realize that by employing a standard delineation, the possibilities of misuse of the genuine intent of the law are lessened tremendously.

Jody David Armour, Ph.D., a USC Law School professor, was asked his views on the law. “When one looks at self-defense laws you would think typically that you can only use legal force to avert a lethal attack, but there are stipulatory principles built into the self-defense law in different states,” he said. “Florida is one of them.

“That allows you to use the self-defense law even when your life isn’t in danger, just to stand your ground. So it’s not only when your life is in danger, but also when you think that you’re threatened . . .,” he said. “This is a bombshell when you take into account how Black males are seen as a threat throughout the nation by Whites. Whether it’s a learned behavior from media or culture, the self-defense law could lead to open season on African American males, whose presence may intimidate others.”

What if Trayvon Martin had a gun when he came in contact with Zimmerman? Armour was asked. Would Zimmerman have had to retreat or could he have exercised his legal right to stand his ground and defend himself, creating a situation that could have led to a shoot-out?

Armour said that might be the case, but he brought up the 1984 celebrated subway vigilante shooting in New York that involved Bernard Goetz.

Goetz unloaded on four Black youth and a jury acquitted him, even though the youths were running away from him at the time he shot them. The jury concluded that a reasonable person would have been fearful of the youths. So the only question, according to Armour, is whether the jury sympathizes with Zimmerman. If they feel sympathy and empathy for him, they will acquit.

When asked if race will be used by the defense in some form, Armour responded with “No question!” Since Trayvon was Black, he [Zimmerman] had a reasonable expectation that he may do him harm. Zimmerman will not say that explicitly, Armour said, but he will subtly get that fear in.

“He will tell the jury look at the person (Trayvon) who was approaching me. ‘Look at the hoodie over his head. Where have you seen hoodies like that before? In grainy security camera videos where people are holding up stores.’ So an ordinary person (a reasonable person) in my situation would have feared for his life, when he looked at this Black young person. You consider gender, you consider age, you consider race. Someone in a Brooks Brothers suit you’re going to treat them differently than someone in a hoodie.”

What signal does this incident send to Black youth in states that have Stand Your Ground laws? Armour was asked.
“It sends the signal that you should conduct yourself in a timorous and withdrawn fashion whenever you are around anyone who may take you for a threat,” said Armour.

Goetz’s actions on December 22, 1984, polarized America in a way similar to the Trayvon Martin shooting has. The Goetz shooting occurred on a subway in Manhattan and it sparked a nationwide debate on race and crime in major cities, and the legal limits of self-defense

Goetz fired an unlicensed revolver five times, seriously wounding all four youths. He was dubbed the “Subway Vigilante” by the New York press, and was both praised and vilified in the media and in public opinion.

He surrendered to police nine days after the shooting and was eventually charged with attempted murder, assault, and several firearms offenses. A jury found him not guilty of all charges except an illegal firearms possession charge, for which he served a two-thirds of a year sentence.

Law professor Richard Daniel Klein, in an abstract for the Journal of Race and Ethnicity titled “Race and the Doctrine of Self Defense: The Role of Race in Determining the Proper Use of Force to Protect Oneself,” used the Bernard Goetz shooting as a test case for an example of deliberate race-based profiling and a race-based shooting. Klein said a valid and appropriate use of self-defense justifies the use of force against another, even when such force results in death. But the force must have been absolutely necessary in order to protect oneself; it cannot have been used as a form of self-help or a display of vindictiveness to retaliate against an individual who may be standing as a symbol for a group that has treated an individual in negative hostile ways in the past.

According to Klein, Goetz had been robbed previously by African American teens, which may have impacted his judgment in the subway shootings.

Klein believes one has to determine if the threat to Goetz was truly “imminent.”

In cases of a battered woman syndrome, it has been found that 20 percent of the cases in which the battered woman killed, there was no direct confrontation occurring at the time of the killing. In fact, eight percent of the time the murdered husband had actually been sleeping. But law reformers and women’s advocacy groups attacked the requirement of “imminent threat’ as being too restricting for the unique position many women often found themselves in. A repeatedly battered woman may well be one who fears the next attack could occur at any time; there was, so to speak, always the threat of an immediate attack.

In the case of Goetz, the so-called dangerous assailants, upon seeing the gun-wielding Goetz, had turned and run away.

Klein feels the high crime rate in New York in the ’80s may have prevented the jurors from following the instructions of the judge, and they had focused solely on whether the threats against Goetz were truly imminent or were the shootings by Goetz just a release of long-standing pent-up anger and hostility based in part on race? Were the shootings attempts to retaliate for past abuses that Goetz or his family suffered from Blacks? Apparently, they saw the shootings as justified.

Florida legislator Dennis K. Baxley, author of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, has been defending the law on national television since the Martin shooting, contending that “it may not have anything to do with the recent death of Trayvon Martin.” After numerous calls to Baxley’s office in an attempt to ask if he had taken into consideration the impact racial profiling may have played in determining legitimate fear as opposed to racism, we were able to reach staff member Debbie Dennis.

When questioned about the death of Trayvon Martin, racial profiling and Baxley’s bill, she said “We want people to be safe and vindicated from harm. We think Mr. .Zimmerman’s actions do not apply to the Floridian Stand Your Ground law. We will make further comments after the Task Force on Citizens Safety has reviewed the incident completely.”