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Will 'Stand Your Ground' Laws Stand Up To Scrutiny?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program we will speak with our money coach Alvin Hall about why you cannot take a break from watching your finances, no matter how hot it is. He'll have tips for a mid-year financial check-in. That's later in the program.

First though, we are going to continue our look at the implications of the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman. Over the weekend, as you probably know, he was acquitted in the shooting death of the unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. Well, there's been a number of demonstrations and much commentary about the verdict around the country, which many people found unjust. We heard the first concrete information about the deliberations last night from a juror who spoke with CNN's Anderson Cooper. She said she found Zimmerman's self-defense claim convincing.


JUROR B-57: George had a right to protect himself at that point.

ANDERSON COOPER: So you believe that George Zimmerman really felt his life was in danger.

JUROR B-57: I do, I really do.

MARTIN: Even before the trial began though, this case raised questions about self-defense laws in Florida and around the country, particularly the so-called stand-your-ground doctrine, which was first signed into law in Florida. It changed the way many states define self-defense. Because of such concerns, both Florida and the American Bar Association have undertaken to reexamine the law.

We wanted to hear more about this so we've called Florida attorney Leigh-Ann Buchanan, she is the co-chair of the American Bar Association's National Task Force on Stand Your Ground and she's with us now. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

LEIGH-ANN BUCHANAN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Could you just first help us understand how stand-your-ground changed the legal definition of self-defense in Florida, and as we mentioned, other states then followed suit. What happened as a result of the change in statute?

BUCHANAN: Certainly. Well, stand-your-ground laws are essentially a statutory expansion on the existing right to self-defense. Self-defense has always existed since common law. But from - at a most basic level, stand-your-ground laws eliminated the duty to retreat in public spaces.

So prior to the 2005 enactment of Florida's stand-your-ground law, an individual who was faced with a confrontation had an obligation to retreat to a place of safety if he or she could do so safely. And the second component about stand-your-ground laws, which is a novel innovation, is that stand-your-ground laws injected this immunity. It's an immunity from criminal prosecution and subsequent civil proceedings relating to the use of force.

MARTIN: Now you've said that many Americans misunderstand the role of stand-your-ground in the Zimmerman case. Could you talk about that?

BUCHANAN: Certainly. Well, many people do not understand that stand-your-ground played two key roles in the Zimmerman case. If you recall, in around April or May, there was much speculation as to whether or not Zimmerman would take advantage of Florida's new procedure, whereby he could seek a determination from the judge overseeing the case as to whether or not he needed to proceed to trial based on his claim of self-defense.

Now as I just mentioned, there's this new component of the stand-your-ground law, which allows criminal defendants to elect a pretrial hearing, which essentially they would present their evidence to the court, and the court would make a determination as to whether or not the use of force was justified under the circumstances. In fact, in the Zimmerman case, George Zimmerman's attorneys elected not to take advantage of the pretrial hearing, they essentially waived that right.

But stand-your-ground also came into play at the trial level, at the trial before the jury. And stand-your-ground is an amalgamation of several statutes, but primarily, the instructions that were given to the jury changed under Florida stand-your-ground law, in that the instructions that were given were that George Zimmerman did not have a duty to retreat, so there's lots of questions as to whether or not he ought to have retreated. Under the new law, he didn't have a duty to retreat.

MARTIN: So you're saying that - to your point that a lot of people don't understand the way the law played out in the trial, you're saying just because his attorneys - George Zimmerman's attorneys did not exercise their right to ask the judge to dismiss the case based on that defense pretrial, the statute clearly animated, or informed their defense during the trial?

BUCHANAN: Yes, that's exactly correct, because when you look to the specific language of the Florida statute and the statue that was read to the jury as part of the instructions, the language is that a person has no duty to retreat, has a right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force if he or she reasonably believes that the force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury. And as we heard in the closing arguments, George Zimmerman's attorneys cited to that particular language, so in fact, stand-your-ground did play a role.

MARTIN: And in fact, one of the jurors, in her interview with Anderson Cooper, said that it did. She said that he stood his ground. She used that specific language. If you're just joining us, we're talking about the future of stand-your-ground laws with attorney Leigh-Ann Buchanan.

She's co-chair of the American Bar Association's National Task Force on Stand Your Ground. So tell me about the task force now. How did the task force come into play, it was prompted, was it not, by this case? What's the objective of this task force now?

BUCHANAN: Well, the task force was formed late last year, obviously prompted by the death of Trayvon Martin. There was a lot of attention paid to the fact that charges were not laid against George Zimmerman 45 days after the killing. And so this caused the ABA, many individual ABA entities, including the Coalition for Racial and Ethnic Justice, to question whether or not the ABA ought to reexamine the utility of stand-your-ground laws. The primary objective of the task force is to conduct a comprehensive, objective and nonpartisan study - a study that's national in scope, where we look at the utility and necessity of stand-your-ground laws from a legal perspective.

And we also examine the impact that these laws potentially may have on public safety, racial and ethnic minorities, juveniles and also, we are examining the potential impact that these laws may have on the criminal justice system, particularly focusing on the law enforcement function and the prosecutorial function.

MARTIN: Well, you know, Florida has already looked at this question. I mean, there was a task force appointed by, I believe, the governor, and it was led by the then-lieutenant governor at the time, and the conclusion of this Florida-based task force is that there was no need for a change in the law. There are those, of course, who criticize this group as not being balanced and objective. What's your assessment of that, since you are there?

BUCHANAN: Well, our assessment of the Florida task force is that we don't take a particular position as to whether or not the ultimate recommendations were right or wrong. As part as the ABA's assessment, we are going to look at all available information, including the final report of the Florida's task force. Although we are making an effort in the membership of our task force, to make sure that we include all perspectives - that it's balanced. So we have many different perspectives that are incorporated.

We have prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, legal scholars, we have representatives of law enforcement and we're taking a nonpartisan approach. So it's not that these individuals are appointed by a particular political figure that they may hold an alliance to.

MARTIN: The Post reported on this whole question, or this debate opening up about stand-your-ground laws back in April of 2012, like a lot of people looking at this in the wake of this case. And they reported at the time, that there had been an increase in justifiable homicide cases in the wake of this law having been passed in Florida. But there's really been no long-term research to show whether there has been an effect on public safety overall.

There are people obviously, who have opinions about this question. I mean, it was reported at the time when these laws were first being debated that a lot people in law enforcement were very skeptical, they thought that it would increase a sense of vigilantism, that a lot of people who are not terribly well-trained and don't have particularly strong judgment would then use this as an excuse to act on their impulses and so forth. Clearly, people on both sides of this question are using this particular case to buttress their points of view. How are you going to sort that out? How are you going to sort out, you know, fact from opinion in something like this?

BUCHANAN: Well, one of the main questions that you've just alluded to is whether or not these laws actually make a community safer. And as you've mentioned, preliminary findings of many studies have indicated that these laws may not be effective in reducing crime, and may increase incidents of justifiable homicide. And one of these studies that's floating out there is a preliminary finding by John Roman at the Urban Institute, who actually happens to be a member of the task force.

And in his initial statistical analysis of FBI data from stand-your-ground jurisdictions, he actually looked at this issue and he found that in stand-your-ground jurisdictions following the passage of these laws, there was a marked increase in justifiable homicides. And he looked a little bit further at the issue as to whether or not there were racial disparities in these determinations of justifiable homicides. John actually found that in incidents where there's a white on black shooting, homicides were ruled justified in 35.9 percent of incidents.

And when there was a black on white incident or shooting, the homicide was ruled justified in only 3.4 percent of the cases. What the task force is doing is we're working with the Urban Institute, particularly John Roman, to expand on these initial studies. We are not just doing a legal assessment; we're going to do a multidisciplinary study that includes empirical support for ultimate recommendations. We haven't finalized our analysis but when we do issue recommendations in 2014, our recommendations regarding the potential impact on public safety as evidenced by crime rates will be supported by substantial empirical data and study.

MARTIN: What about the case of persons with - of the same race who are involved in a confrontation. I mean, one of the cases that's gotten a lot of attention in the wake of this acquittal of George Zimmerman is this woman, also in Florida, who fired a warning shot against her ex-husband, who had a history of domestic violence. And she has been convicted of reckless endangerment, those are - both parties are the same race in that case. Do you have data for that?

BUCHANAN: We are going to look at incidents where the two individuals involved are of the same race, but I don't have the data as of yet. However, the incident relating to Marissa Alexander, the case that you just mentioned in Jacksonville, Florida, where she, in fact, received 20 years sentence for shooting her firearm as a warning shot - that raises a question about whether or not there is a disparate impact on minorities.

So that's one of the questions that the task force is going to endeavor to address in its study. And as part of what we're doing, we are going across the country and holding a series of public hearings in major cities across the United States. Our last public hearing was held in Philadelphia, and as you may be aware, Pennsylvania does, in fact, have a stand-your-ground law. And one of the things that we have seen, the testimony that we have received indicates that there may in fact be issues of disparate impact on racial and ethnic minorities as it relates to stand-your-ground laws.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. Leigh-Ann Buchanan is the co-chair of the American Bar Association's National Task Force on Stand Your Ground. She's a lawyer in Miami, Florida, and she joined us from member station WLRN, which is there. Leigh-Ann Buchanan, thank you so much for joining us.

BUCHANAN: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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