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'Stand your ground' defense fails in Texas case. Lessons for George Zimmerman?

A conviction in Texas Wednesday shows that not all defenses built on stand-your-ground laws are successful. George Zimmerman has invoked the defense in the Trayvon Martin case. 

By Staff writer / June 14, 2012

Raul Rodriguez (r.) stands with his attorney Bill Stradley Wednesday in Houston as he is found guilty of killing Kelly Danaher.

Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle/AP

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As he confronted several neighbors over a loud stereo two years ago, retired Houston-area firefighter Raul Rodriguez brandished a gun and warned, “I am standing my ground here” – a warning that was picked up by the camera he had set up to film the scene.

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As the camera was knocked to the ground, a barrage of gunfire ensued, as Mr. Rodriguez killed Kelly Danaher, an unarmed elementary school teacher, and wounded two other unarmed men.

On its face, the scenario appears, as Rodriguez apparently realized, a classic example of a "stand your ground" defense. In all, 33 states – including Texas – have stand-your-ground laws that say a victim of a potentially deadly attack has no obligation to retreat, but can use lethal force in defense.

Yet on Wednesday, a jury in Houston took five hours to find Rodriguez guilty of murder, dismissing the stand-your-ground defense on a simple point: If Rodriguez had not provoked the fight and brandished the weapon first, it’s unlikely anyone would have been killed.

"This is not what stand your ground is," said Kelli Johnson, the prosecutor. 

In all the states that have passed some version of stand your ground since Florida’s landmark law in 2005, defendants can’t claim the “no duty to retreat” protection if they’re in the commission of a crime or if they initiate the confrontation.

Now, as stand-your-ground laws are scrutinized in the wake of George Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida, with critics claiming that the laws turn shooters into judge, jury, and executioner, the Texas case offers an example of the law's limits.

In Florida, Mr. Zimmerman was originally released without charges because police, referencing the stand-your-ground law, found no reasonable cause to disbelieve Zimmerman’s self-defense claim. The state only charged Zimmerman after the governor, under a storm of criticism, appointed a special prosecutor to investigate.

The Texas verdict shows, some say, that the legal process can weed those who attempt to abuse the law, with courts retaining significant power to determine appropriate use of force even in states where there’s no "duty to retreat."

“What the Texas case says is you have to take each state law and each fact pattern on its own terms and you can’t make sweeping generalizations, as many opponents of stand your ground laws have, that this is a license to kill – it’s clearly not,” says Cornell University law professor William Jacobson, who runs a conservative blog at Legal Insurrection.

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