A panel of U.S. senators Tuesday dissected Florida’s “stand your ground” law with the help of the mothers of two young black men shot to death in the state last year.
“The person who shot my son is walking the street today,” said Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, who was 17 when he was killed in Sanford in a case that roiled the nation. “This law does not work.”
“I face the very real possibility that my son’s killer will walk free, hiding behind a statute that lets people claim a threat when there was none,” said Lucia McBath, whose son, Jordan Russell Davis, also 17, was killed while sitting in a car during a dispute over loud music in Jacksonville.
Fulton and McBath addressed the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, which took up the implications of “stand your ground” laws at the behest of Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
The hearing in Washington focused almost completely on Florida.
Durbin said Florida had adopted the first stand your ground law, which was used as a model by the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council to get approval of similar measures in other states.
Now, at least 22 states have similar laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and Durbin said the laws go too far in sparking confrontations that lead to deadly violence.
Ranking Republican Ted Cruz of Texas questioned whether the scrutiny of “stand your ground” was part of a broader “political agenda” and said it is a longstanding principle that Americans have the right to protect themselves. “Self-defense is a bedrock liberty of every American,’' Cruz said.
The 2005 Florida law expanded the traditional “Castle Doctrine,” which gives people the right to use deadly force to defend themselves in their own homes. It removed the duty to retreat for those who believe their lives are in danger and provided immunity from criminal prosecution or civil lawsuits.
Martin was walking through a gated community, on his way home from buying a drink and candy, when he was pursued by a neighborhood-watch volunteer, George Zimmerman. Zimmerman, who claimed that Martin attacked him first, was acquitted in July.
Zimmerman claimed he shot Martin in self-defense but did not use stand your ground to avoid being prosecuted. The law, however, spawned changes to jury instructions that at least one Zimmerman juror said resulted in the not-guilty verdict.
Since the day of his death in February 2012, Martin’s case has sparked disagreement, and Tuesday was no different.
“Sadly, we know that some in our political process have a desire to exploit that tragic, violent incident for agendas that have nothing to do with that young man who lost his life,” Cruz said. “We have seen efforts to undermine the verdict of the jury and more broadly to inflame racial tensions that I think are sad and irresponsible.”
Durbin responded by quoting Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington bureau of the NAACP, also in the hearing record: “These (‘stand your ground’) laws and their applications have sadly resulted in no less than the murder of people who were doing nothing more than walking down the street.”
Much of the debate centered on whether African Americans are targeted by the “stand your ground” laws.
In Florida, blacks comprise 16 percent of the population but 31 percent of those who invoked “stand your ground” as a defense, John Lott, Jr., president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, told the panel. And blacks who invoked the statute were acquitted “almost eight percentage points more often than whites,” Lott said.