Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Return to Frontier Justice

When I was a kid one of my favorite activities was to go to the movies on Saturday afternoon where a ticket cost twelve cents and justice was meted out Western-style without consequences by those who (thought they) were doing right.   Probably the best phrase to understand the justice of the old cowboy movies is ‘kill or be killed.’  We don’t see much of that in the movies anymore, but who can forget the signature part of each Western movie where the good guy rides into town and takes on the bad guy in a shoot-out on Main Street in full view on the entire town’s occupants?

I experienced a severe case of déjà vu about these childhood experiences this morning when I read that the Tampa Bay Times has identified nearly 200 "stand your ground'' cases and their outcomes in Florida.  For those of you who may have been spending time on another planet the past four months and, as a result, been unaware of happenings in Florida, a self-anointed executor named George Zimmerman took it upon himself to follow and shoot to death an unarmed young black kid who was walking through a gated community carrying a bag of Skittles he bought for his step-brother.  Zimmerman now claims as his defense a ‘stand your ground’ law   
People have had the right to defend themselves from a threat as far back as English common law. The key in Florida and many other states was that they could not use deadly force if it was reasonably possible to retreat.  In 2005  Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law a significant change of the common law.  The new law says a person "has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground'' if he or she thinks deadly force is necessary to prevent death, great bodily harm or commission of a forcible felony like robbery.  "Now it's lawful to stand there like Matt Dillon at high noon, pull the gun and shoot back,'' a University of Florida law professor and former prosecutor in North Florida is quoted in the Times article.  Hence my déjà vu.
The law has had some definite unintended consequences.  As the Times reports:
• Those who invoke "stand your ground" to avoid prosecution have been extremely successful. Nearly 70 percent have gone free.
• Defendants claiming "stand your ground" are more likely to prevail if the victim is black. Seventy-three percent of those who killed a black person faced no penalty compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white.
• The number of cases is increasing, largely because defense attorneys are using "stand your ground" in ways state legislators never envisioned. The defense has been invoked in dozens of cases with minor or no injuries. It has also been used by a self-described "vampire" in Pinellas County, a Miami man arrested with a single marijuana cigarette, a Fort Myers homeowner who shot a bear and a West Palm Beach jogger who beat a Jack Russell terrier.
• People often go free under "stand your ground" in cases that seem to make a mockery of what lawmakers intended. One man killed two unarmed people and walked out of jail. Another shot a man as he lay on the ground. Others went free after shooting their victims in the back. In nearly a third of the cases the Times analyzed, defendants initiated the fight, shot an unarmed person or pursued their victim — and still went free.
It has always seemed to me that the goal of a civilized society is to move forward in the direction of  more humane conduct among and between individuals and groups and, indeed, one of the inherent strengths of these United States is that we are a nation of laws binding us all together in that goal.  Laws, such as the ‘stand your ground’ law, defeat that very purpose.  Just saying . . .

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