Can Florida stick to its guns?
A white man is acquitted of murdering an unarmed black teenager: now the entire US criminal justice system is on trial, once again, in the court of public opinion
One juror, speaking publicly for the first time since the verdict, told CNN on Tuesday that none of the jurors believed race had played a part in the shooting. Identified only as Miss B37, because the jurors cannot be named publically, she said Zimmerman’s “heart was in the right place” on the night he killed Martin, but he “just got displaced by the vandalism in the neighbourhoods and wanting to catch these people so badly that he went above and beyond what he really should have done”.
Under Florida’s broad self-defence law, he was not found by a jury to have any murderous intent. Even the police cited the law for not arresting Zimmerman for six weeks after Martin’s killing. The state’s laws set the bar too high for prosecutors to prove that Zimmerman had not acted in self-defence.
Stand your ground
Florida is one of 23 states in America with stand-your-ground laws that give someone a right to meet force with deadly force, with no duty to retreat, if they fear death or great bodily harm. Though the law was never raised during the trial, the judge in the Zimmerman case instructed the jury of five white women and one Hispanic woman in a way that allowed them to consider it as a legitimate defence.
Speaking on Tuesday at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Orlando, not far from the scene of Martin’s killing, the US attorney general, Eric Holder, called for the stand-your-ground laws to be reconsidered, saying the laws created “more violence than they prevent”.
Research has shown that black Americans are more than likely to be the victims of this violence. The Urban Institute, a Washington DC social-policy think tank analysed 4,650 FBI records of murders and found that white people who shoot black strangers have the highest chance of getting away with it and an even better chance in states with stand-your-ground laws; blacks had the lowest chance.
“These are laws that do potentially have a racial impact because of the way it stacks the burden: it creates situations like the Trayvon Martin case,” says Denis Parker, director of the racial justice programme at the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Racial stereotypes inform so much in our society that these kind of laws have a strong impact if you start with the assumption that African-Americans are the aggressors. If you look at the criminal justice system as a whole, it works against people of colour.”
A report by the ACLU last month found that, in 2010, black Americans were nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession, even though blacks and whites used the drug at similar rates. In states such as Minnesota and Iowa, blacks were eight times as likely to be arrested; it’s a trend in racial disparity that has grown in 38 states since 2001.
The New York Civil Liberties Union found that although they account for only 4.7 per cent of the city’s population, black and Latino males accounted for 41.6 per cent of stop-and-frisks by police officers in 2011. The number of stops of young black men exceeded the city’s population of young black males.