Trayvon Martin and Institutionalized Bias

Published: July 22, 2013

In the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for killing Trayvon Martin, thousands of Americans from across the country have taken to the streets to decry the latest evidence of the low value assigned to the life of a 17-year-old black boy in the United States.
 
We do not have firsthand knowledge of the trial proceedings or specific evidence presented to the jury, but news outlets have widely reported that the police botched the initial investigation, the prosecution’s forensic expert was incompetent, and an important prosecution witness was not adequately prepared to testify. The state was too squeamish to put the touchy issue of race squarely before the six-woman jury. And the trial judge forbade the prosecution from speaking about racial profiling. Still we are stunned: is there no way to hold Zimmerman accountable for taking the life of a young boy out on a candy run?
 
At least part of the answer to this question is Florida’s "stand your ground" law. This law allows a person who feels threatened to fatally shoot someone even if it is possible to safely avoid the conflict. The law was championed by the National Rifle Association (NRA), which has been working to get similar laws enacted in states across the country.
 
Florida’s version is one of the broadest self-defense laws in the United States. Rather than requiring that a fear of harm be objectively reasonable, Florida requires only a showing of subjective fear. This means that it is sufficient to claim to have been in fear of one’s life even if the average person would not have experienced fear in that exact same situation. By placing the state’s seal of approval on irrational fear and prejudice, Florida is effectively encouraging senseless violence – even road rage killing incidents.
 
Bizarrely, it also seems that the subjective fear someone experiences at the sight of a young black man in a hoodie may trump the fear of a violent husband when it comes to reliance on the stand your ground defense, at least in Florida. In 2012, Marissa Alexander, a survivor of domestic violence, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing warning shots to deter her abusive husband from beating her. Ms. Alexander was convicted despite the fact that previously she had sought a protective order against her husband, and despite the presence of her sobbing 11-year-old daughter in the courtroom. Ms. Alexander had never been in trouble with the law, and had given birth to her youngest child less than two weeks before this incident. Clearly, she was not justified in standing her ground in her own home while caring for a newborn and another young child.

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