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Racial bias and 'stand your ground' laws: what the data show

Data from states with 'stand your ground' laws raise questions about how notions of self-defense are evolving and whether, under such laws, race-based fears are more likely to influence juries.  

By Staff writer / August 6, 2013

Defense counsel Mark O’Mara held life-size cutouts representing George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin during closing arguments July 12 in Mr. Zimmerman’s trial.

Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/AP

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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.

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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.

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