Demonstrators in Florida and Michigan have used the same language to describe the shootings of two young African Americans. But the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Renisha McBride this month raise different legal questions along the touchy intersection of race and guns.
Both Martin, 17, and McBride, 19, were unarmed when they were shot. The people who killed them -- George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who shot Martin in Florida, and Theodore P. Wafer, 54, of Dearborn Heights, Mich., a white man arraigned Friday afternoon on charges of murder in the death of McBride -- say the shootings were justified.
But for civil rights activists, the two slayings are symptoms of the same condition: A society that undervalues the life of people of color and a legal system that makes it hard to prosecute those who kill. Civil rights group across the political spectrum, joined by members of the Obama administration, including Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., have questioned so-called stand your ground laws that expand how the idea of self-defense is applied.
“Theodore Wafer will stand trial for his deadly actions; prosecutors and law enforcement have determined that Wafer did not act in lawful self-defense under Michigan’s so-called 'Stand Your Ground' or 'Shoot First' law,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange, which describes itself as the nation’s largest online civil rights organization.
“ColorOfChange remains committed to our long-standing efforts to repeal deadly, racially-biased Shoot First laws, which have painted a target on the backs of Black people, wherever they are on the books. In both life and death, Black men and women like Renisha McBride have their lives criminalized and bodies devalued by a system that too often does not protect them. Shoot First laws have no place in a society that values fairness and public safety.”
In terms of the law and circumstances, the two cases in Florida and Michigan are different, although they have generated similar passions.
On the night of Feb. 26, 2012, Martin, wearing the now famous black hoodie, was returning from a convenience store where he had bought a package of Skittles and a soft drink. Zimmerman, who was light-skinned and of Latino ancestry, saw Martin, left his vehicle and followed him. The prosecution maintained that Zimmerman had profiled Martin because he was black. Zimmerman said he was concerned about a recent spate of robberies in his community.
Florida has a stand your ground law, which allows someone who feels threatened to use legal force, rather than flee. The law also calls for a special hearing in self-defense cases to allow a defendant to argue that he acted under the law.
Zimmerman never availed himself of the special hearing, choosing instead to fight the case along traditional self-defense lines. His defense team argued that the evidence showed that Zimmerman scuffled with Martin and that the younger man managed to get on top and beat Zimmerman’s head into the ground. Zimmerman, fearful, reacted in self-defense and used his legal handgun to shoot Martin.
After a jury agreed with the defense and acquitted Zimmerman, civil rights leaders continued to call for the repeal of stand your ground laws. Days after Zimmerman was acquitted, Atty. Gen. Holder added his voice, noting that such laws “senselessly expand the concept of self-defense” and may encourage “violent situations to escalate.”
Michigan does not have a stand your ground law, although state law does recognize the concept of self-defense, Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy said Friday when announcing the charges against Wafer. The homeowner is charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter in the death of McBride and a weapons charge.
According to prosecutors, McBride was driving a white Ford sedan at 12:37 a.m. on Nov. 2 when she hit a parked car. “McBride was observed to have blood on her body and appeared to be disoriented when she left the scene on foot,” prosecutors said.
At 4:42 a.m. police received a call about a shooting and went to a home in Dearborn Heights. There they found McBride in the front porch area of Wafer’s house. McBride had been shot in the face after she “knocked on the front screen door of the house. There were no signs of forced entry at the location,” prosecutors said.
“Under Michigan law, there is no duty to retreat in your own home," Worthy said. "However, someone who claims self defense must honestly and reasonably believe that he is in imminent danger of either losing his life or suffering great bodily harm, and that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent that harm.
"This ‘reasonable belief’ is not measured subjectively, by the standards of the individual in question, but objectively, by the standards of a reasonable person.”
By that standard, prosecutors decided to charge Wafer. Worthy said race played no role.
“Undoubtedly, there has been enormous interest in this case, but we do not make decisions in our cases based upon public opinion. We go where the facts and evidence lead us,” Worthy said.
The Detroit branch of the NAACP praised the prosecutor for bringing charges, but noted that the case was in its early stages.
“The shadow of Trayvon Martin and his untimely and what many believe unnecessary death in the state of Florida continues to haunt many in the African American community," the NAACP statement said. "This particular case had the appearance that it might have been headed down the same road.”
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