Urban Wire Stand Your Ground laws and miscarriages of justice
John Roman, P. Mitchell Downey
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By any measure, the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman was a tragedy. As has been widely reported, George Zimmerman was monitoring his community in an unofficial neighborhood watch role and spotted the teenaged Martin walking through the Sanford, Florida streets. Zimmerman found Martin to be suspicious and the altercation that ensued left Martin dead.

From this incident, important questions have been raised about “Stand Your Ground” (SYG) laws in place in Florida and 28 other states. In all states, private citizens have the right to use lethal force in their homes in self-defense. SYG laws extend that right to public places, such as the Sanford streets. And, these laws transfer the fact finding about whether the homicide was justifiable from a jury to law enforcement. That is, in most states without these laws, a jury must determine that the homicide was a justifiable use of lethal force in self-defense. In SYG states—including Florida—the shooter cannot be arrested unless law enforcement finds probable cause the shooting was unlawful.

That moves this crucial decision from the courtroom to the street and tilts the odds in favor of the shooter. Thus, the Trayvon Martin case provides ample evidence that SYG laws weaken justice.

While we cannot know for certain what happened in Sanford, we can look at years of homicide data to determine where the burden of proof should lie in these types of homicide cases. If there are types of homicide where shootings are often justified, SYG laws are reasonable. However, if there are few circumstances where shootings are justified, those laws will impede justice.

We turned to the Supplemental Homicide Report (SHR) maintained by the FBI, which includes all reported homicides in the US, including justifiable homicides, to determine what types of cases—and how often—civilian use of deadly force was justified.

First, it is important to note that justifiable homicides are exceedingly rare. Between January 2005 and December 2009 there were more than 73,000 homicides in the United States but less than 2 percent (1,148) were found to be justifiable.

We combed the data to identify homicides which resemble the known facts from the Trayvon Martin case—cases in which there was a single victim and a single shooter (both of whom were civilians and strangers) and in which the victim was killed by a handgun.  We identified 4,650 of these cases in the SHR. Of these, just 10.9 percent (506) were ruled to be justifiable homicides.

However, we note that these numbers vary by whether a state is a SYG state. In SYG states, 13.6% of homicides under these circumstances are found to be justified. In non-SYG states, only 7.2 percent are justified. We then looked for a scenario where homicides are justified more than half the time. It turns out that the scenario with the highest probability of being a justified homicide is much like the Martin case—a single, White civilian handgun shooter who is a stranger to (and older than) the Black victim. But even then, the shooting is found to be justified less than half the time.

Finally, we searched the SHR data for cases that matched all the facts of the Martin case (including ages and races). Out of 70,000 cases, we find that the homicides similar to the Martin case occurred just 23 times in five years. Of those 23 cases, only 9 (39 percent) were ruled to be justifiable homicides.

Since the overwhelming majority of shootings are not justified, it seems clear that SYG laws reduce the chance for justice by moving the burden of proof from the shooter to law enforcement.

In the Martin case, since Florida is a SYG state, the law strongly favors Zimmerman. It appears as though local law enforcement will not find probable cause that Zimmerman’s shooting was unjustified. By contrast, without the SYG law, it seems reasonable to predict that Zimmerman would not be able to demonstrate to a jury that the shooting was justified. Thus, history suggests Florida’s Stand Your Ground law will lead to a miscarriage of justice.

Research Areas Race and equity
Tags Courts and sentencing Racial and ethnic disparities Crime and justice analytics Racial disparities in criminal justice