An analysis of "stand your ground" self-defense cases in Florida by the Tampa Bay Times makes a strong case for the law's repeal. The 2005 state law has been the focus of attention since neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman invoked it in the shooting death of teen Trayvon Martin. But until now little was known about the way the defense is systematically used across the state. A Times examination of nearly 200 "stand your ground" cases reveals the law is inconsistently applied and too easily invoked. It has been used to exonerate drug criminals and people on violent rampages, and it has proven to be a burden to the courts. The record reflects a dangerous experiment in vigilantism and rough justice.
A detailed review of the state's "stand your ground" cases by Tampa Bay Times staff writers Kris Hundley, Susan Taylor Martin and Connie Humburg found nearly 70 percent of those who invoke the law have gone free. This success rate stems from the law's loose standards, not because it has been judiciously applied. Too many defendants are hiding behind the law's protection who should be answering for their crimes.
The law extends the so-called castle doctrine beyond one's home. It says a person has no duty to retreat and may respond with deadly force if he or she is in fear of great bodily harm. Nowhere does the law say it cannot be invoked by someone who put themselves in harm's way or initiated a confrontation. That point was driven home when Zimmerman, who has been charged with second-degree murder in Martin's death, was not initially arrested despite having tracked Martin through Zimmerman's gated community in Sanford.
The Times' analysis found that the predictions that "stand your ground" would excuse Wild West-type behavior were right. The law has been regularly used in morally ambiguous circumstances that mock what lawmakers intended. It has been used at least six times in drug deals gone bad, 23 times in cases involving fights at bars or parties, 12 times in neighborhood disputes and 30 times in arguments that turned violent. As the law's critics feared, "stand your ground" gives legal cover to hotheads who would escalate a tense situation and to people who carry weapons. In 157 killings where the "stand your ground" defense was invoked, the accused had a gun or knife. In 135 cases, the victim who died was unarmed.
One of the more disturbing examples of the mayhem and violence this law condones was its application in a Tallahassee gang shooting. The two men who fired the AK-47 responsible for killing a 15-year-old — a shooter as well — were granted "stand your ground" immunity by Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis. There was evidence that the men did not fire the first shot, yet they had fired 25 or 30 times outside an apartment complex.
While exchanging gunfire on the street can get a defendant absolved, in a Clearwater case a man who killed a cousin who was stalking toward him to beat him up was given a 25-year sentence. Disparities such as these raise due process questions. Throughout the state, some killers have walked free while others who seem to fit the law's definition spend decades in prison.
The issue of race also bears more discussion, even though the Times analysis did not find any obvious bias in how black defendants have been treated. The study did find that people who killed a black person went free 73 percent of the time, while those who killed a white person went free 59 percent of the time. There may be other factors at play to explain the disparity, but the public's perception that there is racial bias has increased since Zimmerman shot and killed Martin, who was black.
Even if the issue of race is set aside, the law encourages inconsistent application through loose standards and a low burden of proof. The accused has only to show by a preponderance of the evidence that "stand your ground" applies to his or her case. Many defendants can meet this burden if a judge is inclined to interpret the statute broadly. There are still no clear limits on someone invoking the law after using an illegal weapon or shooting someone fleeing.
Defense attorneys are delighted by "stand your ground." These extra hearings sap court and prosecutor resources, giving their clients an additional bargaining chip. A fivefold increase in nonlethal "stand your ground" cases (lethal cases have declined) suggests that the law is becoming an increasingly popular way to evade criminal responsibility for violence.
As the nation watches what happens to Zimmerman, who is now back in jail, it is the law that should be on trial. A task force to investigate "stand your ground," led by Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, is stacked with lawmakers who either sponsored the law or are vocal supporters of it. Carroll pointed to the Times' reporting to suggest the law may need reforms, but the task force's objectivity would be more believable had the law's critics been given a seat at the table. The Times' analysis demonstrates that this is a law that cannot be fixed, and it should be repealed.