'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. 

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

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.

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.

Statistics indicate, however, that the stand-your-ground defense is generally effective. In Florida, about 70 percent of stand-your-ground defenses – which have grown in number annually since Florida passed the first version of the law in 2005 – are successful. Nationally, homicides are twice as likely to be ruled justifiable in stand-your-ground states.

While the Florida law, for instance, wasn’t intended to protect criminals in the commission of a crime, it has protected defendants involved in gang shootings and drug deals gone bad, as well as defendants who shot and killed someone retreating from an altercation.

Thanks in part to its broad definition of "stand your ground," as well as the national attention on the Trayvon Martin case, Florida has remained in the center of the stand-your-ground debate. Two state task forces are looking into whether the law needs to be changed. Moreover, the Florida Supreme Court recently ruled that juries have to weigh immunity decisions on the preponderance of evidence, not evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. Florida courts continue to debate how the law should be applied when someone is shot in retreat, or if the stand-your-ground claimant has an illegal gun.

Texas may join states like Florida and Michigan in reviewing its stand-your-ground law, especially as Trayvon's parents this week released a video pleading with state residents to ask legislators to take another look at the laws. But aside from the potential for minor tweaks, legal experts say, stand-your-ground laws are likely to withstand scrutiny and are unlikely to be repealed.

Legal verdicts like the one Wednesday in Texas, however, could further clarify the limits of stand your ground. 

On the 22-minute video he made as he confronted his neighbors over the noise of a party, Rodriguez tells a police dispatcher: "It's about to get out of hand sir, please help me. Please help me, my life is in danger now.... Now, I'm standing my ground here. Now, these people are going to try and kill me."

Rodriguez says he didn’t pull out his gun until Mr. Danaher approached him in a threatening way. Jurors, however, ultimately agreed with the prosecutors’ description of Rodriguez as an out of control neighborhood bully with a gun. 

"He felt like he had ultimate control, control to determine who lives and who dies," said Donna Logan, Harris County assistant district attorney.

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