Saturday, December 16, 2017
Public safety

What would be justice for 'stand your ground'?

So he is charged, and everyone can take a breath.

After weeks of intense debate on guns and race and what justice should look like, the most infamous neighborhood watch volunteer in America faces a second-degree murder charge in the shooting of an unarmed teenager.

Now those who criticized the weeks that passed before George Zimmerman was arrested in the death of Trayvon Martin can mark this moment as progress.

But even as lawyers get ready for the serious pretrial wrangling to come and the court case slowly unfolds and we learn about the evidence against him, we shouldn't lose sight of what got us here in the first place:

The overreaching, unnecessary and potentially dangerous law that could still ultimately exonerate him.

By now Florida's "stand your ground" law is pretty infamous, too, steroid-strengthened in 2005 to say you have no obligation to look for alternatives to killing someone if you feel seriously threatened. Even now, no one has come up with any real justification for changing the law as it then existed, beyond making the National Rifle Association happy yet again.

Law enforcement types were understandably worried about emboldening people to provoke confrontations instead of calling police or stepping back to cool down before someone died. Critics talked about the potential for cheapening human life.

We know the law has been interpreted differently depending on where it's used, that a case that results in criminal charges in one part of the state might not in another. This does not exactly inspire confidence about justice evenly applied.

Maybe most alarming, though, is we now know "stand your ground" has protected people from criminal charges even when they were the ones who did the pursuing or started the confrontation.

At this point, everything written about this case should include the caveat that we don't know all the evidence about who said what or what physical evidence shows. We do know Zimmerman told a 911 dispatcher he was following a suspicious teenager in a hoodie. We know he says it was Martin who ultimately attacked him and he had to shoot to protect himself — to stand his ground — even if he initially went after Martin and supporters of the law insist pursuers weren't meant to be protected.

If you think this case is an anomaly, consider one closer to home. Trevor Dooley was 69 when he shot 41-year-old David James in a dispute over a kid skateboarding at a neighborhood basketball court. (And could there be a more senseless reason for someone to die?)

Dooley brought the gun into the situation but says he feared for his life when James came after him. Because authorities say he illegally displayed that gun, and "stand your ground" says the shooter must otherwise be obeying the law at the time, Dooley is charged with manslaughter. Whether the case goes forward is now a question in the hands of a judge.

When everyone up to President Barack Obama was weighing in on the shooting in Sanford, politicians vowed a thorough review of "stand your ground." We'll have to wait to see what justice finally looks like here. But a piece of it would be holding those politicians to their word for serious reconsideration of all this law has wrought.

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