#watchyourstepWednesday, February 26, 2014
Collateral damage of Stand-Your-Ground laws
For The Herald in the US
Deadly shootings show another face of impunity in US
NEW YORK - In less than a year, three cases of deadly shootings in Florida have sparked controversy over the Stand-Your-Ground laws, which have taken self-defence to an almost delusional new level. And now lawmakers in the Sunshine State want to broaden them.
The first case that made headlines was the death of Trayvor Martin, shot by George Zimmerman on February 26, 2012. The black teenager from Miami Gardens had left the house of his father’s fiancée, in Stanford, to get a can of Arizona watermelon juice at a nearby 7-11 store. On his way back, Zimmerman, a volunteer of Neighborhood Watch, called 911 to report the suspicious presence of Martin. He confronted him. Allegedly he feared for his life — he mistook the can for a gun — and shot the 17-year-old in the chest. The police officers at the scene did not arrest Zimmerman because Stand-Your-Ground does not allow it; however, the half-Hispanic shooter was indicted with second-degree murder and manslaughter, and acquitted on July 13, 2013.
The second case was the death of Jordan Davis, shot by Michael Dunn on November 23, 2012. The black teenager from Jacksonville was with other three friends inside an SUV parked at a Gate gas station. They were listening to rap music at a very high volume. Dunn parked his car next to theirs; before his girlfriend, Rhonda Rouer, left the vehicle to make a purchase in the store, he told her: “I hate that thug music.” Then he rolled down his window and said to the occupants of the Dodge Durango: “Turn your music down, I can’t hear myself think.” One of them did so. Davis objected: “Fuck that, turn it back up.” Then he argued with Dunn, who said “Are you talking to me? You are not going to talk to me like that,” took a gun off his glove box and fired 10 times. Nine bullets hit the SUV; three killed Davis.
Dunn said the 17-year-old had threatened him —“I’m gonna fucking kill you. I should kill you right now”— and shown the barrel of a gunshot, or maybe an iron pipe, through the window of the rear seat where he was seated; he said that Davis then walked toward him. No witnesses or cameras supported Dunn’s testimony about the verbal intimidation. The police found no weapon or pipe in the Durango, which was pulling out while Dunn continued firing.
A jury convicted Dunn last week. They found him guilty of three counts of attempted murder for firing at the three other teenagers and one count of firing into a vehicle, but could not get an unanimous vote on his guilt of murdering Davis.
Among the standard instructions for deliberation, Circuit Judge Russell L. Healey had informed the jurors that the defendant had “no duty to retreat,” and “the right to stand his ground;” also, that the danger he was trying to avoid “need not have been actual.”
In the third case it seems that the Stand-Your-Ground laws will be explicitly referred to by the defence, even if a bag of popcorn does not seem to pose much of a deadly threat.
Curtis Reeves, a retired police officer, was at the Grove 16 cienma near Tampa waiting for a film (Lone Survivor, the story of four Navy SEALs ambushed in Afghanistan while on a mission against al-Qaeda) to start. He was sitting behind Chad Oulson, a 43- year-old financial manager, who was texting the babysitter of his toddler. During the previews Reeves told him to put his cell phone away; the men began to argue. Reeves walked out to complain to the manager, who was busy; on his way back, Oulson asked him if he had been out to do so. The dispute escalated. Oulson threw his bag of popcorn at Reeves, who pulled a .380 semi-automatic gun and shot Oulson to death and hurt his wife Nicole.
Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco said “It was determined Stand-Your-Ground doesn’t fly here in this case.” However, Reeves’ attorney, Richard Escobar, considered otherwise: “This is not a throwing popcorn case only. This is a throwing a deadly missile case.”
He is not kidding. Stand-Your-Ground allows for such an argument.
The law does not focus on how real or pressing was the threat that caused a self-defence reaction, even if it lead to death. The law only says that if someone does something that you feel is going to hurt you, or worse, you have the right to defend yourself.
Even if it is throwing a bag of popcorn.
Or listening to loud music and swearing.
Or walking with a can of Arizona watermelon juice.
The argument has been received with love by many criminals, in particular gang members, who have been freed thanks to it.
Paradoxically, the Title XLVI (Crimes), Chapter 776 (Justifiable Use of Force) of the Florida Statues, establishes that someone who threatens to kill someone (even in self-defence) is more at fault than someone who pulls the trigger of a gun and actually kills. The first one is menacing; the other one was trying to protect his or her life.
That happened to Marissa Alexander, who fired a warning shot at her ex-husband, Rico Gray, while he was beating her. She was sentenced to 20 years.
Her case is one of the cited by the National Rifle Association-backed new bill that will be discussed in Florida, which proposes that people who threaten to use force while trying to defend themselves should be exempted from facing mandatory minimum sentences. Alexander’s was a mandatory minimum requirement, and was revoked on appeal; she is now awaiting retrial. The new bill will extend the exemption of criminal and civil liability to those who point a gun at an attacker or fire a gun as a self-defence threat or warning.
As of today, Stand-Your-Ground states in Article 3:
“A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”
The text has been adapted to another 31 states, therefore allowing vigilante groups — like Zimmerman’s — to exist. It also misreads John Locke’s Of the State of War, part of his Two Treatises of Government, where the Enlightenment author wrote: “It being reasonable and just, I should have a right to destroy that which threatens me with destruction.” And: “The aggressor allows not time to appeal to our common judge, nor the decision of the law, for remedy in a case where the mischief may be irreparable.”
So the NRA makes sure that it certainly is irreparable. No maybes.
The Florida law was approved by all the members of the State Senate and the majority of the State House in 2005, and then-Governor Jeb Bush signed it.
Before that reform, the law ruled the duty to retreat, if practical, before using deadly force. NRA’s executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, censured it: “This duty to retreat may sound fine at an Ivy League cocktail party; it doesn’t work very well in the real world of crime victims,” he said in an interview on Fox News in 2012.
Since Stand-Your-Ground was passed, the “I thought he/she was going to kill me” argument has tripled the justified homicides in the state.
In July, Attorney General Eric Holder said that those laws “sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods.” He might like to rephrase if Stand Your Ground is successfully applied in the Popcorn Defence.