Aug 6, 2013

During the closing arguments of the George Zimmerman trial, defense attorney Mark O'Mara asked the courtroom to be quiet for four long minutes. When he at last broke the silence, he said those four minutes were the amount of time that Trayvon Martin had had to go home.

Mr. O'Mara left no doubts: It was Trayvon's decision not to go home, but instead to "plan" an attack on Mr. Zimmerman, punching and beating him, that caused Zimmerman to fatally shoot him. Because he did not go home, O'Mara said, "Trayvon Martin caused his own death."

It is an argument, it seems, that was successful; the jury on July 13 found Zimmerman not guilty of murder or manslaughter. But it is also an argument that raises deep questions about how notions of self-defense have evolved in the era of "stand your ground" laws, and whether those changes are allowing racial fears to influence juries.

The implication in O'Mara's argument was that Zimmerman, who is white and Hispanic, who was armed, and who ignored a 911 dispatcher's instructions not to follow Trayvon, had more of a right to stand his ground than did 17-year-old Trayvon, who was black. And the verdict suggests the jurors agreed.

Data from other states with stand-your-ground laws indicate that the Zimmerman jury was not alone in being sympathetic to such a claim. Whites are significantly more successful claiming self-defense when their attacker is black than blacks are when fighting back against an attacker who is white, according to one study.

To some, such findings are a consequence of the pandemic of violence plaguing elements of the black community. But to others, they suggest that stand-your-ground laws have allowed perceptions of the black community – sometimes accurate, sometimes not – to become a legal justification for using deadly force.

Stand-your-ground laws have begun to change the calculus of self-defense in the United States. The idea behind them is to "expand the legal justification for the use of lethal force in self-defense, thereby lowering the expected cost of using lethal force and increasing the expected cost of committing violent crime," say researchers Cheng Cheng and Mark Hoekstra in a Texas A&M study.

Statistics included in the study bore that out, showing that justifiable homicides rose by 8 percent in stand-your-ground states, amounting to some 600 additional killings.

The laws have spread quickly. Since Florida passed the first stand-your-ground law in 2005, at least 30 other states have followed suit, either though legislative action or court decisions.

This comes at a time when concealed-carry gun laws are being expanded, meaning the success or failure of stand-your-ground laws will depend on "whether [people believe] guns produce a net social benefit or not," says Brannon Denning, a law professor at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., and author of "Gun Control and Gun Rights: A Reader and Guide."

Critics say the laws upset a basic social order by, in essence, deputizing citizens. Not only does that raise the risk of minor disputes and misunderstandings becoming deadly incidents, but it also provides some legal cover for Americans to take deadly action based on their own subjective, and possibly racially tinged, views.

The Zimmerman verdict fit into a long narrative of juries refusing to convict white vigilantes on serious charges – from Bernhard Goetz in 1987 to the police in the first Rodney King trial in 1992 – for violence against black men. But a study by John Roman of the Urban Institute suggests that stand-your-ground laws could be amplifying the trend.

In states with stand-your-ground laws, the shooting of a black person by a white person is found justifiable 17 percent of the time, while the shooting of a white person by a black person is deemed justifiable just over 1 percent of the time, according to the study. In states without stand-your-ground laws, white-on-black shootings are found justified just over 9 percent of the time.

Such findings "show that it's just harder for black defendants to assert stand-your-ground defense if the victim is white, and easier for whites to raise a stand-your-ground defense if the victims are black," says Darren Hutchinson, a law professor and civil rights law expert at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "The bottom line is that it's really easy for juries to accept that whites had to defend themselves against persons of color."

The potential reasons behind this are multilayered.

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