In Florida, a recent state appellate court decision is forcing open the conversation of the fair application of “stand your ground” laws. In May 2012, Marissa Alexander, a mother of three who had just given birth to her third child a week before the incident in question, fired a “warning shot” into the wall after a physical altercation with her husband, Rico Gray, over alleged infidelity by Alexander. Gray broke through the bathroom door where Alexander was hiding, grabbed her neck and shoved her into the now-broken door. After failing to find a way to escape, she returned with a gun and fired a shot as a way to warn him off — as what she perceived as being “the lesser of two evils.”
Gray has admitted that he abused Alexander and Alexander, at the time, had an active restraining order against Gray, banning him from contact with Alexander. «I got five baby mammas, and I [hit] every last one of them, except for one,» Gray said in a court disposition before Alexander’s trial.
Despite this, state attorney Angela Corey — who pushed for an indictment and trial against George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin — sought full charges against Alexander. In a trial where the jury took only 12 minutes to deliberate, Alexander — due to the use of a gun in the case — received 20 years imprisonment under Florida’s 10-20-Life law.
On Thursday, the state appellate court ruled unanimously that the burden of proof that the trial judge placed on Alexander was unreasonably high. The trial judge had instructed the jury that Alexander had to prove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. In self-defense cases, however, self-defense is assumed, as long as the defense can offer reasonable assertion that a threat to life existed. It is the job of the prosecutor to disprove that there was a need for self-defense. The trial court, through its instructions, relieved the prosecution of its burden and incorrectly placed it on the defense.
In addition, the appellate court rejected the prosecution’s argument that the fact that Alexander was uninjured disproves self-defense, as the threat of violence is reasonable rationale for self-defense. While the appellate court refused to grant Alexander immunity under “stand your ground,” it did vacate the trial court’s ruling and ordered a new trial.
A biased system
Many have argued that this case represents a problem with Corey, whose heavy-handed prosecutions and questionable tactics, including the charging of 12-year-old Cristian Fernandez as an adult for murder in 2011 and the termination of Ben Kruidbos for revealing that Corey’s office has withheld evidence from Zimmerman’s attorneys at a pretrial hearing. «She was among the most irresponsible prosecutors I’ve seen in 50 years of litigating cases, and believe me, I’ve seen good prosecutors, bad prosecutors, but rarely have I seen one as bad as this prosecutor,» said Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz. Corey allegedly contacted the dean of Harvard Law School to petition for discipline against Dershowitz after he publicly commented on the Kruidbos situation.
Behind this, however, is a deeper question on the way the legal system approaches self-defense. For the most part, race matters in the degree of mercy afforded in these cases. According to a study sponsored by Vote Vets, the National Urban League and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, from 2005 to 2007 justifiable homicide jumped 53 percent in “stand your ground” states, compared to a five percent drop in non-”stand your ground” states.
According to a PBS “Frontline” analysis, while it is actually more likely for a Black-on-Black or a Black-on-White homicide to be found unjustified rather than justified, it is disproportionately likely that a White-on-Black homicide would be found justified.
“[Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center senior fellow John Roman] found that Stand Your Ground laws tend to track the existing racial disparities in homicide convictions across the U.S. — with one significant exception: Whites who kill blacks in Stand Your Ground states are far more likely to be found justified in their killings,” reported Frontline. “In non-Stand Your Ground states, whites are 250 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than a white person who kills another white person; in Stand Your Ground states, that number jumps to 354 percent.”
“With respect to race, controlling for all other case attributes, the odds a white-on-black homicide
is found justified is 281 percent greater than the odds a white-on-white homicide is found justified,” Roman reported in his findings. “By contrast, a black-on-white homicide has barely half the odds of being ruled justifiable relative to white-on-white homicides. Statistically, black-on-black homicides have the same odds of being ruled justifiable as white-on-white homicides.”
The situation grows more convoluted when the nature of the victim is taken into consideration. A 2012 Tampa Bay Times analysis of 182 “stand your ground” cases in Florida shows that 135 case victims were unarmed. Only 19 victims had a gun and eight were wielding a knife. Of the same 182 cases, 121 of the accused did have a gun, while 36 had a knife. Only 18 were unarmed. Of these cases, 68 percent were found to be justifiable homicides. Some 57 percent of all defendants acknowledged they could have retreated from the encounter, while 71 percent “stood their ground” in a location other than their own property.
The Times found that a person who killed a Black person on the basis of “stand your ground” are likely to walk away free 73 percent of the time, compared to 59 percent for a White victim.
«I don’t think judges or prosecutors or whoever works in the field of criminal justice is consciously saying black life is worth less than that of other ethnicities,» said Kareem Jordan, a criminologist at the University of Central Florida. «But at the end of the day, it could be something that’s subconscious going on if you look at how the media depicts black life.»
A racist nation
While it is difficult to paint clear patterns in this data — a closer examination of Florida’s “stand your ground” cases, for example, shows African-Americans having a higher success rate in “stand your ground” cases than the state’s average — it is clear that implementation of self-defense is flawed in regards to the evenness of application. Determining why exactly this is, however, may prove to be even more difficult.
At the annual meeting of the American Bar Association, Jennifer Eberhardt, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford University, shared an anecdote about her five-year-old son that reflects the common mindset of many Americans. Her son commented to her about a Black male passenger on their cross-country flight looking like his father.
“This man’s facial features and complexion were very different from those of my husband,” recalled Eberhardt. “He was about four inches shorter, and he had long dreadlocks flowing down his back. My husband is bald.”
“He said he hoped the man would not rob the plane,” said Eberhardt. “I asked him why he would say such a thing, because his dad would never rob a plane.” The boy agreed, and when pressed about what triggered his comment, the child said sadly, “I don’t know.”
Most Americans bear a racial bias of which they are consciously unaware. According to a 2012 Newsweek poll, almost 60 percent of all Americans feel that race relations in this country have stagnated or deteriorated under the Obama presidency. In the same year, the Associated Press found that 56 percent of all Americans, when tested on an implicit racial attitudes test, displayed an anti-Black disposition.
For many Americans, the notion of the dangerous Black man is all too real, despite the fact that the fear is not based on empirical evidence. While overt or explicit racism has declined, studies have shown that the nation’s failure to address the emotional or psychological underpinning of the discomfort only pushed it out of sight.
While a traditional question about racial and gender stereotyping finds that whites perceive “blacks” as more violent than “whites” and “men” as more violent than “women,” a question that asks about combinations of these identities—black men, white women, etc.—shows how black men are uniquely stigmatized. More than 40 percent said that many or almost all black men were violent, but less than 20 percent said that of black women and white men.
We also extend one of the implicit measures of racial attitudes, the Affect Misattribution Procedure (AMP), to measure how white Americans view not simply blacks and whites, but men and women of each race. As displayed in the figure below, we find that black males elicit the most negative sentiments. Indeed, those who responded the fastest to the measurement task—thus the most clearly expressed implicit bias—registered not only extremely sharp divides between black men and whites of both genders, but also made a clear distinction between black men and black women.
In a culture where racial distinctions influence the stories that are covered in the news, the way characters are perceived in movies and on television and the likelihood of political aspirations, the notion that the effect race plays in the justice system has not been seriously considered is not only shocking, but dangerous. Under a blind justice system, victim empowerment laws “stand your ground” could can be argued on their own merits.
Unfortunately, America’s justice system is not blind. It is directly and indirectly biased in the way it perceives the victim and the offender. In such a system, a law such as “stand your ground” — which removes the burden of irrefutable assertion of potential harm from the analysis of lawful use of deadly force — presents the potential of profound abuse in a system that was already racially warped.
In 1965, former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) said of the Black male,
“Of the greatest importance, the Negro male, particularly in the South, became an object of intense hostility, an attitude unquestionably based in some measure of fear … Keeping the Negro ‘in his place’ can be translated as keeping the Negro male in his place: the female was not a threat to anyone.”
If, as a society, America is to get past this mentality, it will have to accept the truth on how it sees race. Only then can the injustice stop.