A friend and former colleague who teaches within the College of Business conversed with me recently on the case of Marissa Alexander in light of current discussions regarding “Stand Your Ground” statues in general and specifically within the state of Florida with the media attention given to the Zimmerman Trial and growing attention to the conviction of Ms. Alexander. For those who feel surrounded by media coverage of the Zimmerman Trial and acquittal, this article provides one of the clearer summaries of the events surrounding Ms. Alexander.
As you can read, a number of issues are at play in this case. We have the “Stand Your Ground” types of laws and their similarities and differences from laws often labeled in the vein of “Castle Doctrines.” Sentencing issues such as increasing penalties for subsequent convictions like the 10-20-life laws in Florida or similar philosophies within a broad umbrella of “3 Strikes” types of laws. The roles and powers of trial participants like the judge and prosecution, and the representation of the defense are factors in this case just as they are in many others.
As with the Zimmerman Trial, I did not watch any of the proceedings in the trial of Ms. Alexander. Celebrity or high media profile cases don’t capture my intention, and until the judge or jury has rendered a verdict I typically know few if any details in such cases. The exception to that was the OJ Simpson Trial which I did watch and follow. While I’m not old enough to remember OJ as a player in his prime, I certainly knew who OJ Simpson was in the world of sports. I do, however, follow Congressional hearings on a variety of subjects. Even before beginning my professional careers, I watched the Iran Contra Hearings, and as both student and professor of history I have viewed the hearings of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
I may be mistaken, but I do not believe that the Zimmerman Trial specifically addressed the “Stand Your Ground” statutes in Florida. Those laws, however, have become one of the facets of national debate. You can look at the statutes here:
Perhaps one of the better accounts on the history behind the passage of such laws in Florida in the year 2005 can be found in this article by Ben Montgomery for the Tampa Bay Times.
A brief explanation from a somewhat critical point of view of the Florida law and those which followed in other states can be read here:
The logic behind the concept is obvious. Give the law abiding individual the right to defend themselves without fear of legal repercussions. It sounds great on paper, but it goes against one of the timeless doctrines of self defense which is to do everything possible to avoid a confrontation. Before emotions run high that I’m crazy, ask yourself is it sane to intentionally put yourself into a dangerous situation especially if the territory is unknown? I’m not speaking about merely walking the streets, but in the majority of situations. You don’t even have to believe some fighting philosophies which emphasize that it is best to avoid a punch, if you cannot avoid, try to redirect the punch, if you cannot redirect, try to block the punch, if you cannot block and will be hit, try to roll with punch. The important aspect is to place oneself in the most effective position to counter that punch.
Another image is that of something trapped. If an avenue exists for escape that will be the route most often used. If no escape is possible, the trapped entity becomes more dangerous because it will use any and everything within its power to win because the only other option is death. If a non defense comparison is better to understand, when trying to negotiate for anything is it wise to make your initial offer the best that you have? Or do you try to keep that Ace up your sleeve or that trump card hidden to use only when absolutely necessary.
To me that is Stand Your Ground. Implicitly, the law imparts the idea of using your best resource first. Even if one has no concern for the well being of another, if you use your best resource first and it fails what do you have left? You may legally shoot someone who you feel is a threat, but what if you miss? What if that individual is unarmed but takes your weapon and uses it against you? If that confrontation could have been avoided by backing away, which is the best option?
Whether the code of law is written as such or not, I think the natural instinct for most human beings is to protect their physical person, property, or others facing a threat. Self defense, however, does not mean it is best to try and harm the attacker. The goal is to protect and to expose oneself to the least danger as possible. Television westerns and media talk make it seem easy, but in reality anything can happen in a fight and the longer it continues the more chances for getting harmed. You can read many reports of the man from positive and negative points of opinion, but when you consider that a highly trained military man, Chris Kyle, regarded as the most lethal sniper in US Military history, was gunned down at a shooting range, how does your training and experience compare to Mr. Kyle’s?
Somewhat similar to “Stand Your Ground” are Castle Doctrine laws which have a much longer history of existence. Here the comparison would be to the one of the trapped entity above as you are within your property. Exact definitions on the extent of what is considered covered under Castle Doctrine varies from statute to statue. Some general information can be found here:
Many who try using the case of Zimmerman and Martin and the statements of President Obama calling for a review of Stand Your Ground laws as a travesty of justice recently lost all credibility with me in the attempts to label the President as a hypocrite. The alleged hypocrisy is based upon Illinois state statutes from 2004 where then State Senator Obama co-sponsored a bill strengthening a 1961 law. Opponents paint those 1961 and 2004 laws as Stand Your Ground instead of Castle Doctrine. Typically confusion over the fine line between the concepts would not register with me significantly from an academic research perspective. The fact, however, that these same groups accusing the President of hypocrisy admit and become adamant when Florida is not recognized as the first Stand Your Ground legislation in 2005 (one year later) places their arguments in the “I can’t justify my opinion based on the truth, so I’ll work some spin to prevent real dialogue from occurring amongst people with legitimate concerns either for or against.”
The National Review piece criticizing the President can be seen here:
An opposing opinion can be found in Slate here:
I’ll merely offer two reasons for my opinion on why the hypocrisy charges are bogus. The first is the timeline issue with the legislation in Illinois enacted before that in Florida. The second and most relevant for me, however, is what is wrong with reviewing if a law or anything has been effective 9 years later? Personally, if this and previous Congresses would actually do some work without trying to turn everything into political arguments, imagine how much waste and corruption would be stopped if they reviewed the costs and effectiveness of any number of programs they enacted over a period of time? Nobody can deny that Congress appropriates funding regardless of selective Constitutional reading given the recent pushes to defund Obamacare. For the first time in modern history, an accounting of every Federal agency receiving funding is being conducted, and that is actually an initiative from the White House. I would have hoped that someone before Obama would have wanted to see a list of everyone and everything receiving taxpayer money.
In a future installment, the aspects of sentencing, discretion of prosecutors and judges, the roles of implicit and explicit bias, and some of the economic factors involved in a complex and multi level subject that too many people on both sides want to argue on race alone are at play will be addressed. My point is not to sway others in one direction or the other. It is to identify a wide array of factors in hopes of creating productive dialogue which leads to more effective and efficient processes. For many emotions run too high with attempts to over simplify this as a “one size fits all” type of garment. Many on all sides want that to continue because their goal is not working to make the problems better and to answer the plethora of questions, but to unload their ample supply of stock for the maximum profit in the seller’s market created by the pundits.