For Blacks, either side of the controversial “stand your ground” laws has proven disproportionately punitive, as recently proven in the cases of Florida’s Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander, civil rights activists and legal and other observers say.
In the case of Martin, the 17-year-old, hoodie-wearing Black teen was gunned down by community patrolman George Zimmerman, who invoked the state’s “stand your ground” policy in his defense.
“In our racially convoluted society quite regularly the perceived threat factor increases if the perpetrator is African American,” said the NAACP’S Hilary Shelton, vice president of government affairs and Washington bureau chief. And that’s one of the reasons police initially let Zimmerman go, Shelton added. “There was this perception that somehow or the other there were reasons to fear. So when the police saw this 6-foot-3 kid on the ground, they believed everything Zimmerman told them was true.”
The case of 31-year-old Marissa Alexander presents a different, but equally disturbing side of the coin, however. A Florida judge recently denied her a retrial on the basis of the “Stand Your Ground” principle. The mother of three faces a 20-year mandatory sentence on an aggravated assault charge, after she fired a gun during a tussle with her abusive husband.
The conviction was based on an Aug. 1, 2010 incident, when Alexander said her husband, Rico Gray, went into a jealous rage after finding text messages to her ex-husband on her phone. “That’s when he strangled me. He put his hands around my neck,” Alexander told CNN in an April interview from Duval County Jail in Jacksonville, Fla.
Though she escaped his grip, Alexander said she ran to the garage, thinking to flee with her vehicle. But she forgot her key and the garage door was locked, so she grabbed her gun and went back into the house. Gray then threatened to kill her, Alexander added, so she fired her gun into the air thinking to scare him off. “I believe when he threatened to kill me, that’s what he was absolutely going to do.
That’s what he intended to do. Had I not discharged my weapon at that point, I would not be here.”
Alexander rejected a plea deal that would have cost her three years in prison, saying that she acted in clear self-defense and should be fully acquitted. But Circuit Judge James Daniel denied her request for a new trial, saying that despite new evidence, it would be improper to reverse Circuit Judge Elizabeth Senterfitt’s previous findings in the immunity hearing. “Maybe I would be agreeing to a new Stand Your Ground motion, which highlights some of the difficulties we are struggling with procedurally implementing this new law,” Daniel said. “But ultimately the motion is denied.”
In making her decision Senterfitt questioned why Alexander went back into the house if she was “in genuine fear for her life,” saying such action belied her claim of self-defense.
But activists and other observers see the judges’ rulings as evidence of racial disparity in the application of the self-defense laws.
“There’s a double standard with ‘Stand Your Ground,’” said Isaiah Rumlin, president of the Jacksonville chapter of the NAACP, in a CNN article. “The law is applied differently between African-Americans and whites who are involved in these types of cases.”
The blog Wonkette expressed its skepticism this way, comparing Alexander’s case to Zimmerman’s: “In Florida, as it turns out, being in ‘genuine fear of your life’ means that you’re white and your attacker is black, so clearly that was her (Alexander’s) first mistake. Also, if you really want to Stand Your Ground you have to call the police only to ignore their instructions anyway, so there’s that. And crucially, it doesn’t say anywhere if her husband was wearing a hoodie when he was threatening to beat her up, which we hear is a relevant aspect of whether or not black men are actually scary.”
The NAACP’s Shelton said the organization is still examining patterns in the application of “Stand Your Ground”—otherwise known as “Line In The Sand,” “No Duty To Retreat” or the “Castle” doctrine—across the country. But, he added, even without a racial breakdown, statistics show that in the 24 states that have such laws there has been a 300 percent increase in so-called self-defense-related homicides. Such loss of life is enough to challenge this principle, he said.
“We’re convinced that ‘Stand Your Ground’ is a vigilante, get-out-of-jail free card,” he said and later added, “ clearly demonstrates at the very least the confusion of ‘Stand Your Ground’ with the adjudication of these cases being handled so differently. You have quite a lot of disparity.”
The NAACP’s campaign to annul “Stand Your Ground” is among mounting challenges to such laws, which gives immunity or allows a self-defense defense to someone who kills someone to protect their property or person.
For example, in Georgia the Rev. Markel Hutchins filed a civil rights lawsuit, charging that the law does not apply equally to African Americans. He says the law makes racism—presented as “reasonable fear”– a legal defense.
“Fear is oftentimes based on one’s own bias,” he said in a GPB.com article, “so when you have public policy that, literally lends itself to people being able to commit crimes or shootings under the color of law, because they’re reasonably afraid, it makes a bad public policy and puts the constitutional rights of so many people around the country in jeopardy.”