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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.  

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Two of the six women who were jurors in the trial have spoken out about the verdict, with one, "Maddy," suggesting that Zimmerman "got away with murder" because of the way the law is written in Florida.

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The legal rationale for stand-your-ground laws has a lot to do with uniquely American historical dynamics, says Mr. Cottrol, a liberal African-American sociologist who has argued that "the ultimate civil right is the right to defend one's own life."

"One of the differences between English common law and what became the American majority view might be that English common law developed when confrontations were likely to occur with swords, where it's reasonable that you could run away, whereas American [self-defense] law developed in the age of the gun, where it's much more difficult to retreat if an assailant has a gun, or where there's a possibility he might have one," says Cottrol, a professor at the George Washington University Law School and author of "Gun Control and the Constitution."

Within the African-American community, the skepticism about stand your ground can run deep.

"The concern from the black community is rankled by the fact that there's a disproportionate number of African-Americans incarcerated – an entire generation – which fuels the concern by [blacks] around the country that stand-your-ground laws are aimed at them, that it's just another way that white Americans are trying to do away with generations of African-Americans, almost like a form of genocide," says Jeffrey Swartz, a former Miami-Dade judge who's now a law professor at Cooley Law School in Tampa, Fla.

Yet in Florida, some of the most ardent defenders of the law have been black defense attorneys. The reason: Their black, often young, clients are the most successful users of the law. Indeed, data show that black defendants have a high success rate in invoking stand your ground in black-on-black violence. In fact, if all cases are taken into account, black defendants have a higher success rate in claiming stand your ground than do white defendants, and they attempt to claim stand your ground at higher rates.

"There is a long history of African-American support for gun rights and the principle of armed self-defense," writes Jelani Cobb, director of the Institute for African-American Studies at the University of Connecticut, in The New Yorker. He cites the Deacons for Defense and Justice, an armed posse that protected civil rights marchers, and former NAACP head Walter White, who protected his home with a rifle during the 1906 Atlanta race riots.

History could also offer other lessons pertinent today. To that point, both gun rights and civil rights scholars find common cause in a 1921 case out of Detroit.

That year, a French-educated black doctor named Ossian Sweet moved into a white neighborhood, only to be confronted by a white mob of more than 300 people. When the menacing mob began to agitate and throw rocks, Sweet and a compatriot opened fire from a second-floor window, injuring one man and killing another.

Called out of retirement to defend Sweet, famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow made an impassioned argument to an all-white jury, suggesting they admit their biases in order to ignore them.

The jury found Sweet not guilty.

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