This ground you stand on is also our ground
July 14, 2013 Leave a comment
Florida has once again provided us with a massive miscarriage of justice by acquitting George Zimmerman, who in February 2012 shot 16 year old Trayvon Martin because, well, he could. Everyone knows the story: Martin, wearing a hoodie and carrying a pack of skittles and a bottle of ice tea, was walking down the street; somehow, Zimmerman felt threatened, so he shot and killed the kid. In any other place of the world, Zimmerman would have been charged for first degree homicide, trialed by a jury of his peers and be sentenced from 15 years to life. But this not the rest of the world; this is Florida, where a specific law is actually at the root of many homicide and race issues in the United States: the completely irresponsible, unjustifiable and clearly surreal concept of Stand Your Ground.
Zimmerman, charged under second degree homicide by State Attorney Angela Corey, was acquitted of all charges. His own lawyer, Mark O’Mara, claimed he was happy with the acquittal because Zimmerman’s response was “clearly self-defense”. Defense from what? At no point did the trial explain the situation clearly. Evidence was circumstantial, and it isn’t clear whether Zimmerman was scared of the Skittles, of young Trayvon, of the dark, or of the world in general. Zimmerman, 29 years old, has been described by the prosecution as a “wannabe cop vigilante”, and sadly this is typically the kind of behaviour that Stand Your Ground laws encourage: taking matters into your own hands, substituting yourself to law enforcement, giving in to whatever raging emotions are coursing through your body at the time. Stand Your Ground laws were not made, on paper, to create a space in which mob justice could develop itself. Stand Your Ground just wanted to extend the concept of legitimate self-defense. So let’s pause Trayvon Martin for a bit and consider another Florida case that explains how the sunshine state applies their own laws to different defendants.
Marissa Alexander was an abused mother and wife who had been suffering violence at the hands of her husband, Rico Gray. In May 2012, shortly after the murder of Trayvon Martin, Marissa finds herself in a life threatening situation: her husband threatens to kill her; as a result, she fires three warning shots with a rifle. None of those shots endangered Rico Gray. She was charged with three counts of aggravated assault – and was sentenced to twenty years. In Florida, crimes committed with a fireweapon fall under the “10-20-life” arbitrary rule, and in this case, which didn’t even involve life threatening injury, she received a sentence that could equal first degree murder. Marissa Alexander, who feared for her life and that of her children, did not benefit from the protection of Stand Your Ground laws, despite being clearly in a situation in which she could have died at the hands of her aggressor – her husband. Marissa has been since then the topic of several petitions and support groups requesting a re-trial.Marissa Alexander was arrested nine days after the birth of her daughter.
Stand Your Ground laws emerge from a 1921 decision, Brown vs United States, that created the “no duty to retreat” maxim, aslo known as the Castle Doctrine. Justice Holmes argued that “detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife”. This is clearly a question of self-defense; the Castle Doctrine emerged in a situation of home invasion, arguing on the inviolability of property. The doctrine does provide immunity from civil lawsuit even in the case of the use of deadly force. That line in the sand – blurring the concept of homicide and turning it into justifiable homicide – is what gave birth to Stand Your Ground. Clearly, Stand Your Ground exists in a grey area where one might become the attacker through the use of deadly force, bu only in a situation where he or she is attacked his or herself, and the threat is imminent. Following this rule, Stand Your Ground should have been applied to Marissa Alexander with no question. Cases of domestic abuse could benefit from Stand Your Ground and actually make the doctrine less arguable under natural law on the basis that deadly force can sometimes be the only exist for a person under the threat of death or life endangering assault. Domestic violence, sexual abuse, home invasion, and cause belli are all situations of extreme decision making under duress that could be resolved swiftly through invoking a Stand Your Ground law. The reason why it applied to George Zimmerman and completely failed Marissa Alexander is beyond me.
Strangely enough, the concept of justifiable homicide is not as extended as one would think following the Zimmerman trial. In a Supreme Court decision from 2008 – District of Columbia v Heller – it was reiterated that self defense was primarily concerned with questions of home invasion. Usually – and according to the California criminal code – justifiable homicide covers homicide perpetrated by law enforcement; as in, escape from prison, or execution of the capital punishment. Looking outside of US domestic law, it has been made obvious by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights expects domestic law to implement a degree of leniency in favor of self defense: “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”, which can translate into defending the security of your person with whichever means is at your disposal. All of this would clearly be not subjected for debate if Stand Your Ground had not been invoked for the sole purpose of justifying unreasonable assault or – in the Trayvon Martin case – murder.
This all boils down to imminent threat. Under international law, imminent threat is defined as “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” In domestic law, the Castle Doctrine explains that imminent threat is “when the actor reasonably fears imminent peril of death or serious bodily harm to himself or another“. The keyword in this definition is “reasonable”. When is fear reasonable? It is, by definition, operating on a cerebral and chemical reaction that as far from rational as one can get. Based on the Castle Doctrine, anyone in an aggravated state of fear, corroborated by circumstance, can argue that their fear justified the action they were undertaking, and hereby was no longer lawless, but covered by the Castle Doctrine. It is absolutely paramount that in defense cases where defendant argues in favor of imminent threat, the jury deliberates in a situation of reasonably – rationally, as based on empirical data – action taken on the fact that the defendant would have suffered bodily harm or death as a result of his presence in this specific time and place. We could argue on the “no duty to retreat” statement; we could argue that one should peacefully either walk away or submit to the whims of his or her aggressor, but this is not realistic, and no one wants to be deprived by law of their right to fight for their lives. We all have a survival instinct; we all act on it; and there is something about the sanctity of life and the necessity for one to stand up and fight for themselves that is the most inherent and noble idea(l) behind Stand Your Ground.
Only issue is once one has been granted the right to kill based on circumstance, the door to abuse and unlawful, extreme behavior is cracked open, and the ugliness of the society implementing that law is thrown in the face of the victims. In this case, all the swept-under-the-rug issues of race in Florida and in the South in general have not only resurfaced during the trial, but also impacted it in a way George Zimmerman probably did not think possible.
The fact that most states supporting Stand Your Ground laws are southern (*) does not help the race-baiting situation surrounding Trayvon Martin. In the case of PA, however, the statute clearly stipulates that the attacker must brandish a weapon for the victim to justify use of force. Other states rely on regular criminal self defense (common law principle in 1988’s R vs Beckford). Extending it beyond the limits of imminent threat leads to vigilante justice. Zimmerman was a vigilante, there is no doubt about that, but this behaviour is clearly threatening in a lawful and ordered society. The law must prohibit the use of force at all costs and never beyond the limits set by criminal self-defense; the definition of “imminent threat” must not be extended to potential or hypothetical scenarios. The case of Marissa Alexander is the perfect counter-point to Trayvon Martin. Marissa had been fearing for her life for a while; her husband, before marrying her, already had a history of abuse. There was clearly no reasonable doubt that he would act, specifically since he had made repeated attempts to injure her in fits of rage, and had even claimed he would kill her. Marissa did not even kill her assaillants. The bullet ricocheted on the ceiling. What threat is more imminent than an abusive partner threatening to kill his wife? If Stand Your Ground really intends to keep citizens safe with their own second-amendment-purchased guns, it must absolutely clarify what is a threat, and place it in a lawful, socially acceptable context.
What was imminent about Trayvon Martin? What made him a threat in George Zimmerman’s eyes? In fact, what made Trayvon Martin a threat in the eyes of Florida law? Vigilante action inserts itself when law enforcement fails to bring about justice, or any sort of action hindering the spread of criminal offences. Vigilante action seeks to substitute itself to the rule of law, because it is deeming it ineffective. The word “vigilante” might sound heroic, but it is nothing short of illegal action acting upon what are perceived offences. A vigilante does not operate under Fourth of Fifth Amendment rights. The slogan “if you see something, say something” is geared towards community work cooperating with law enforcement; at no point does it states that “if you see something, do something”. We are not supposed to act upon our own instincts for self-preservation; unless the threat is imminent, unless a weapon is brandished against us or someone is pinning us against wall, there is room for law enforcement action. Authorizing vigilante action under law is basically accepting that citizens will hereby enforce mob justice as opposed to respecting the habeas corpus, and will use means at their disposal to destroy what they consider to be a threat to them, theirs, or their lifestyle. Trayvon Martin clearly did not register as a fellow human on the Zimmerman scale; he did not deserve to be treated like another citizen who might have committed offences that night. Zimmerman took it into his own hands, and has been protected by Florida law. This is all well and good in Florida, but law and order must prevail. We can not possibly live safely in a society where anyone is allowed to take a life at will, at random, under the perceived and unreasonable notion that they are afraid. No one should live in fear; no one should have to doubt the efficiency of their police force. Sadly, we are, because the fabric of social cohesion has been eroded to the point that owning a gun seems safer than dialing 911. Recognizing and acknowledging those feelings of disenfranchisement should not lead to opening the door to mob justice. It should lead to training a police force and changing the judicial system to make it more fair. If the Zimmerman trial showed anything, is that justice in Florida is falling down the rabbit hole it created when allowing Stand Your Ground to protect anyone with a gun. It failed, because it refused to change and see the patterns.
As a result, it is important that the Department of Justice steps in. It is important that not only is an appeal or a re-trial possible for the family and closed ones of Trayvon Martin, but for the Department of Justice – and by extension its spokesperson, Attorney General Eric Holder – to accept that those laws protecting self defense in case of home invasion are actually extended to create a lawless zone, legitimizing unlawful behaviour, and letting any twenty-something run amok after dark. It is important that the Department of Justice acknowledges that there have been failures on the part of local courts to see Stand Your Ground for what it is: protection from imminent threat, not immunity from criminal prosecution. No one should be immune to homicide, second degree homicide, or manslaughter. The very concept of “justifiable homicide” outside of the boundaries of law enforcement is sickening: it implies that taking someone’s life can be excused. That it has no impact. That it has no consequences. That homicide can sometimes be purely circumstantial. It’s not. We are gradually excluding ourselves from a normally functioning society by dehumanizing our fellow citizens, be it by failing to recognize basic women’s rights in Texas or senselessly killing a teenager in Florida. There is no equality under law when the color of someone’s skin, their gender or their creed becomes in itself an excuse for homicide. The Department of Justice must act now. In virtue of its name. In virtue of the blindfolded scales.
(*) Alabama / Alaska / Arizona / Florida / Georgia / Indiana / Kansas / Kentucky / Louisiana / Michigan / Mississippi / Montana / Nevada / New Hampshire / North Carolina / North Dakota / Oklahoma / Pennsylvania / South Carolina / Tennessee / Texas / Utah / Virginia / Washington / West Virginia