Posted on August 8, 2013

Racial Bias and ‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws: What the Data Show

Patrik Jonsson, Christian Science Monitor, August 6, 2013

During the closing arguments of the George Zimmerman trial, defense attorney Mark O’Mara asked the courtroom to be quiet for four long minutes. When he at last broke the silence, he said those four minutes were the amount of time that Trayvon Martin had had to go home.

Mr. O’Mara left no doubts: It was Trayvon’s decision not to go home, but instead to “plan” an attack on Mr. Zimmerman, punching and beating him, that caused Zimmerman to fatally shoot him. Because he did not go home, O’Mara said, “Trayvon Martin caused his own death.”

It is an argument, it seems, that was successful; the jury on July 13 found Zimmerman not guilty of murder or manslaughter. But it is also an argument that raises deep questions about how notions of self-defense have evolved in the era of “stand your ground” laws, and whether those changes are allowing racial fears to influence juries.

The implication in O’Mara’s argument was that Zimmerman, who is white and Hispanic, who was armed, and who ignored a 911 dispatcher’s instructions not to follow Trayvon, had more of a right to stand his ground than did 17-year-old Trayvon, who was black. And the verdict suggests the jurors agreed.

Data from other states with stand-your-ground laws indicate that the Zimmerman jury was not alone in being sympathetic to such a claim. Whites are significantly more successful claiming self-defense when their attacker is black than blacks are when fighting back against an attacker who is white, according to one study.

To some, such findings are a consequence of the pandemic of violence plaguing elements of the black community. But to others, they suggest that stand-your-ground laws have allowed perceptions of the black community–sometimes accurate, sometimes not–to become a legal justification for using deadly force.

Stand-your-ground laws have begun to change the calculus of self-defense in the United States. The idea behind them is to “expand the legal justification for the use of lethal force in self-defense, thereby lowering the expected cost of using lethal force and increasing the expected cost of committing violent crime,” say researchers Cheng Cheng and Mark Hoekstra in a Texas A&M study.

Statistics included in the study bore that out, showing that justifiable homicides rose by 8 percent in stand-your-ground states, amounting to some 600 additional killings.

The laws have spread quickly. Since Florida passed the first stand-your-ground law in 2005, at least 30 other states have followed suit, either though legislative action or court decisions.


The Zimmerman verdict fit into a long narrative of juries refusing to convict white vigilantes on serious charges–from Bernhard Goetz in 1987 to the police in the first Rodney King trial in 1992–for violence against black men. But a study by John Roman of the Urban Institute suggests that stand-your-ground laws could be amplifying the trend.

In states with stand-your-ground laws, the shooting of a black person by a white person is found justifiable 17 percent of the time, while the shooting of a white person by a black person is deemed justifiable just over 1 percent of the time, according to the study. In states without stand-your-ground laws, white-on-black shootings are found justified just over 9 percent of the time.

Such findings “show that it’s just harder for black defendants to assert stand-your-ground defense if the victim is white, and easier for whites to raise a stand-your-ground defense if the victims are black,” says Darren Hutchinson, a law professor and civil rights law expert at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “The bottom line is that it’s really easy for juries to accept that whites had to defend themselves against persons of color.”


On one hand, young black men are disproportionately involved in violent crime. While blacks represent 12 percent of the US population, they make up 55 percent of its homicide victims, the vast majority of those perpetrated by other blacks.


An investigative report by the Tampa Bay Times last year added more nuance to the issue of stand your ground. It analyzed 200 stand-your-ground cases in Florida and found that defendants who killed a black person were found not guilty 73 percent of the time, while those who killed a white person were found not guilty 59 percent of the time.

The paper noted that the discrepancy was due in part to the fact that black shooting victims were more likely to be armed and in the process of committing a crime when shot. {snip}


It’s been widely pointed out that the Zimmerman trial was not a stand-your-ground case. But for all intents and purposes, it was. While it’s true that Zimmerman chose not to request an immunity hearing under the stand-your-ground law, he still has that option if there is a civil lawsuit. If he had requested that hearing, the law would have required he take the stand and explain his actions, which the defense in this case did not want to do.


Yet in Florida, some of the most ardent defenders of the law have been black defense attorneys. The reason: Their black, often young, clients are the most successful users of the law. Indeed, data show that black defendants have a high success rate in invoking stand your ground in black-on-black violence. In fact, if all cases are taken into account, black defendants have a higher success rate in claiming stand your ground than do white defendants, and they attempt to claim stand your ground at higher rates.