Despite ‘startling’ racial statistics, controversial ‘Stand your Ground’ laws withstand legal scrutiny

By Tom McLaughlin, Northwest Florida Daily News, Feb. 21, 2022.

Six days after a jury said George Zimmerman was justified in approaching an unarmed Black teen and shooting him to death when a scuffle erupted, President Barack Obama asked America a difficult question.

“If Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened?”

Several years later, in a report published in 2020 called “Stand Your Ground Kills,” the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence offered a response.

“Statistically speaking, the answer is no,” it said.

When controlling for variables, the odds of a white-on-Black homicide being found justified is 281% greater than the odds a white-on-white homicide is found justified, according to professor John K. Roman, whose research was based on the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report, which unlike other data sets takes into account the final disposition of a proceeding.

In the days following the killing of Trayvon Martin, the concept of “stand your ground” laws and the consistency of their application were widely debated. Then-Attorney General Eric Holder called for a hard look at laws he contended “create more violence than they prevent.” At the same time, then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott convened a task force to consider repealing the law.

Scott’s task force quickly concluded “the majority of Floridians favor an expansive right to self-defense” and recommend Florida’s “stand your ground” law remain intact.

“Stand your ground,” as originally conceived, expanded the common law principle known as the Castle Doctrine to areas outside of the home, and removed any requirement that a person being attacked or approached in a threatening manner seek to remove themselves from an escalating situation before taking defensive action.

Months after Trayvon’s death, however, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights embarked in 2013 on a research project based on “stand your ground” laws but didn’t release results until 2020, long after any momentum for change created by the Martin shooting had subsided.

The commission was tasked with conducting an analysis to determine whether a racial bias existed in the “assertion, investigation or enforcement of justifiable homicide laws in states with “stand your ground” provisions.”

It reviewed FBI data in over 2,600 cases in an effort to determine foreseeable outcomes in cases similar to the Zimmerman shooting of Trayvon.

It was concluded the number of homicides of Black people deemed legally “justifiable” more than doubled in “stand your ground” states between 2005, when Florida’s law went into effect, and 2011. Alternatively, it was revealed that in cases involving a white shooter and Black victim, homicides were ruled justified 45 percent of the time, as compared to 11% of the time when the roles were reversed.

In compiling an analysis of findings, Michael Yaki of the Commission on Civil Rights relied heavily upon data and testimony provided by Roman.

“This is an extremely sobering, and powerful, statistic,” Yaki wrote for the commission.

Florida statistics ‘startling’

Florida cases show a similar pattern.

Roman’s data did not include input from the state of Florida, because Florida did not add its crime statistics to the FBI database.

A team of health scientists conducted a study of its own based upon data the Tampa Bay Times had pulled together in a thorough examination of 237 “stand your ground” cases over several years beginning in 2012.

“Their conclusion was no less startling than that of Roman,” the Commission on Civil Rights reported.

The examination found that in Florida a Black person asserting a “stand your ground” defense in a case where a white person was killed was twice as likely to be convicted as someone using the same defense being tried in the killing of a Black person.

Michael Yaki, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

“Stand your ground” … is a perfect illustration of the disparity in the administration of justice.

And if the victim were Black, and the alleged killer asserting the “stand your ground” defense white, he would have better than double the odds of being let go, Roman’s research found.

“The combination of these two social scientists’ studies – one nationally, one focused on Florida – provide a compelling case that there is racial bias in the application of SYG laws that tilt against justice for African American victims,” Yaki wrote. “And bias in the application of justice.”

“Stand your ground,” in other words, is a perfect illustration of the disparity in the administration of justice,” he concluded.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, a staunch proponent of Florida’s “stand your ground” law, disagrees.

He said statistics purporting to show a racial bias in the application of the “stand your ground” law in Florida and across the country are inaccurate, but continue to be widely circulated by the media.

“It’s a myth to think crimes should be committed proportionately. It’s flawed. It’s absolutely fictitious,” Judd said.

He said the underlying premise – that a given segment of society’s crime rate should correlate to their percentage of the overall population – simply doesn’t hold water.

“Because men and women each make up roughly 50% of the population, the rationale goes that we should have about the same number of each locked up, but that isn’t the case, because men overwhelmingly commit a greater proportion of crimes and violent crimes,” he said.

It’s a myth to think crimes should be committed proportionately. It’s flawed. It’s absolutely fictitious.

Judd said all laws in Florida, including “stand your ground” laws, are enforced and prosecuted by professionals who don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing what laws to enforce and who to enforce them upon.

“Sentencing is based on a matrix that looks at the crime committed and criminal history,” he said. “You can’t take a particular percentage of the population and say you’re picking on males because more of them are in prison. You just can’t figure the data that way.”

‘This is not the way to have a safer society’ 

That attitude, which appears to be the prevailing one among Florida’s state politicians, underscores why little has been done to repeal or reform “stand your ground” laws – which now exist in some form in about 30 states.

In 2021 and again this year, Florida state Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami, introduced legislation called the Self Defense Restoration Act, which would effectively repeal the “stand your ground” law. If passed, his bill would restore the “duty to retreat” aspect of the “stand your ground” statute.

So far, his attempts have failed.

McGlockton was shot and killed in July 2018 in Clearwater during an argument over a parking spot. The shooter, Michael Drejka, used a “stand your ground” defense but was convicted of manslaughter.TAMARA LUSH, AP

“These laws suffer from pervasive racial and gender bias in their application,” the Giffords Law Center report said. “Disproportionately justifying the use of violence by people who are white and male against people who are not.”

Two years after the report, the Giffords Law Center stands by it.

“This is not the way to have a safer society,” said Robyn Thomas, the executive director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Many states, including Florida, continue to tweak their “stand your ground” laws to expand the rights of armed citizens to counter an alleged threat using deadly force.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has gone so far as to propose legislation that would justify using deadly force against people engaging in conduct that results in the interruption or impairment of a business, or participating in looting, which the bill defined as burglary within 500 feet of a violent or disorderly assembly.

A bill creating what became known as the “anti-riot” law was signed by DeSantis, but overturned by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, who declared the legislation “vague and overbroad.”  Walker termed that the law trampled First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly and also violated constitutional due process protections.

Sheriff Judd contends that laws giving a person a right to self-defense have been around for years, and that all “stand your ground” did in 2005 was make it legal to stand up to an aggressor, rather than retreat.

The premise of the law is simple, Judd says: “If you’re walking through a parking lot and a guy confronts you with a knife and says ‘this is a robbery’ and you pull your gun and shoot him, that’s classic “stand your ground.”

But as the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights noted in its report, no two cases in which the “stand your ground” law is cited as a defense are the same.

Disproving ‘stand your ground’ hard ‘when someone is dead’ 

Critics of “stand your ground” say that the removal of a duty to retreat has helped create an environment where people tend to escalate, or even provoke, confrontation that might otherwise be avoided.

“From the rational standpoint, there are situations where you could say ‘you didn’t need to shoot someone in that scenario.’ But a lot of the time it doesn’t matter if you did or not,” said Chris Daniels, a FAMU professor working in its Center for Global Security and International Affairs. “The prosecutor has to prove the person who used force didn’t feel threatened. That’s hard to do when someone is dead.”

Research has shown that in “shall issue” states like Florida, where the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services must issue a concealed weapons license if the applicant meets certain qualifications, gun purchases fueled by fear and a marketed need for self-protection have exploded.

With that, firearm homicide rates have risen by 8.6% and handgun homicide rates by 10.6% since the first “stand your ground” laws were passed in 2005.

These increases are being seen even though “stand your ground” laws do not appear to act as a deterrent to other crimes.

“There is a robust association between shall-issue laws and higher rates of firearm homicides,” the study said.

On Feb. 26, 2012, the night he shot Trayvon, Zimmerman was armed and working as a neighborhood watch captain. He called 911 to report Trayvon, a Black 17-year-old wearing a hoodie, as a suspicious person. Trayvon was making his way back from a store to the home of his father and his father’s fiancée in Sanford, carrying a soft drink and a bag of Skittles. Zimmerman, who is white and of Peruvian descent, confronted the teen even though he’d been instructed not to do so by a dispatcher.

There were no witnesses to the ensuing scuffle and shooting, and Sanford police were initially hesitant to file charges based on Zimmerman’s account of how the incident had unfolded.

In the aftermath of Trayvon’s shooting, a detective recommended a charge of manslaughter be filed. He said head injuries Zimmerman claimed he’d suffered were “marginally consistent with a life-threatening episode, as described by him, during which neither a deadly weapon nor deadly force were deployed by Trayvon Martin.”

After several months and much media scrutiny, Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder. Zimmerman’s lawyers did not use a “stand your ground” defense, opting instead to argue self-defense.

A jury of six women found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder or the lesser-included charge of manslaughter.

To Daniels’ point, Trayvon was not alive to dispute Zimmerman’s account of events.

Benjamin L. Crump, the attorney who represented Trayvon Martin’s family in a civil action against Zimmerman, presently represents Sandy Modell, the father of Ryan Modell, who was killed in March of 2016 following a white-on-white altercation with James Steven Taylor.

“He had knocked on the wrong door after drinking too much at a party and coming home late. There was an altercation in the doorway and the door was slammed,” Sandy Modell, Ryan’s father, wrote of his son in a column printed in 2021 by the Fort Myers News-Press. “My son left, and the owner was safe in his apartment behind a locked door. He and his wife called the police and were instructed to stay inside. That should have been the end of it.

“Instead, the owner waited several minutes, then got his gun, went back outside and pursued my son. He found him two houses away, seated on the ground facing the other way. He yelled and provoked him. When my son stood and approached, he shot and killed him with a 10mm gun that had a laser and a flashlight.”

State Attorney Amira Fox concluded Taylor had acted within the guidelines of “stand your ground” and declined prosecution. Sandy Modell has asked Gov. DeSantis to appoint an independent prosecutor to review the case.

Crump could not be reached for comment.

Further, Daniels said the subjective terms used to define what constitutes standing your ground are what make it dangerous in some cases.

“You could theoretically feel like you were threatened by anyone,” he said. “If I’m walking and some guy pops around the corner and surprises me, it could startle me enough that I’d feel threatened, and under ‘stand your ground’ I could shoot him, even though he was just walking too.”

Judd admitted that a better comprehension of what does and doesn’t constitute “stand your ground” is needed.

“A lot of times we’re investigating cases where people don’t understand the law or are trying to throw a Hail Mary and claim “stand your ground,” he said. “Sometimes if you scream ‘stand your ground’ you end up charged, because it wasn’t ‘stand your ground.’”

Continued discrepancy in how law is applied

While the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights study was conducted nearly a decade ago, more recent research done by the American Public Health Association indicates the commission’s findings remain valid today.

APHA looked at 25 studies that estimated “population-level impacts” of “stand your ground” legislation and published its findings in March of 2021.

“In at least some U.S. states, most notably Florida, stand-your-ground laws have been associated with increases in homicides, and there has been racial bias in the application of legal protections,” the report said.

On July 19, 2013, when President Obama addressed the nation regarding the Trayvon Martin case and asked his “could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?” question, he had a follow-up statement. “If the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.”

Pensacola resident Cedric Alexander is a 40-year law enforcement veteran who has served as president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and was a member of Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

He echoed the former president’s concerns about the way “stand your ground” laws are enforced.

Cedric Alexander, National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives

If we’re going to have a “stand your ground” law, we have to make sure that it is equitable for everyone regardless of race, regardless of gender and regardless of economic background.

“The key to ‘stand your ground’ to me is we have to make sure it is applied equally to everyone,” he said. “Because there’s a perception that ‘stand your ground’ is not applied fairly and equally to everyone.”

“If we’re going to have a ‘stand your ground’ law, we have to make sure that it is equitable for everyone regardless of race, regardless of gender, and regardless of economic background,” Alexander said. “If there is data out there to support that this is not the case, we need to look at that. It needs to be perceived and believed by everyone across our nation it is being applied equitably across the board.”