Stand-your-ground not applied consistently


Richard Shu, Staff Columnist

The reputation of stand-your-ground laws precedes them. They have been under scrutiny ever since Feb. 26, 2012, when George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman, followed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager, through multiple streets, leading to a confrontation that left Martin dead. Critics of stand-your-ground laws argue that they enable violent individuals to provoke fights and then get away with murder. Some also argue that the laws enable prejudice and rash decision-making to kill innocent people.

With situations involving women, however, the opposite seems to be the case. After South Carolina woman Whitlee Jones, in 2012, killed her boyfriend Eric Lee when he was beating her, the judge struck down her stand-your-ground defense. In another instance that took place on Aug. 1, 2010, Florida woman Marissa Alexander shot her gun at the ceiling in an attempt to scare off her husband, Rico Gray, who was in the process of strangling her. Her stand-your-ground defense was also thrown out. The precedent established by these cases is clear: stand-your-ground laws do not apply to women who are threatened by their partners.

We must ask ourselves who stand-your-ground laws are really meant to protect. The Tampa Bay Times compiled a database of over 200 stand-your-ground cases in Florida immediately following the killing of Trayvon Martin. In the majority of these cases, the victim was unarmed, the defendant was in pursuit or the defendant could have retreated to safety. Most stand-your-ground laws include provisions specifying that the defendant must have no other way out. Oftentimes, these qualifications are not met. Whether or not the defendant is acquitted is entirely left to the discretion of the judge.

What matters in many stand-your-ground cases, unfortunately, is how well the confrontation fits into a very narrow cultural perception of what violence looks like. The stranger approaching with malice in his eyes is surely a threat, but a close relation or a domestic partner seems less menacing. Judges tend to rule based on these cultural perceptions. They understand the threat that a man feels when encountering a hooded black teenager in the middle of the night. However, they do not understand the threat of a woman’s abusive husband.

But when women are 16 times more likely to be killed by a man they know than by a stranger, and when police brutality and institutionalized violence are becoming more and more common, it is time to rethink what violence is supposed to be. Regardless of whether the law itself is just, the unfairness in its execution necessitates serious examination. As it stands now, the stand-your-ground law feeds off of dangerous gut-based perceptions of what constitutes deadly violence and whether or not it can be avoided. Without regard for fairness, the law punishes the inculpable and feeds the confrontational.

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, October 29 print edition.  Email Richard Shu at [email protected]