Hard cases make bad law and even worse fodder for the chattering classes. Most of the so-called lessons of George Zimmerman’s acquittal on charges of murdering Trayvon Martin amount to educational malpractice.
• There is no war on black men, at least not by white men. Last year, the Scripps-Howard News Service studied half a million homicide reports and found that killings of black victims by white attackers have actually dropped over the past 30 years, from 4,745 during the 1980s to 4,380 during the first decade of the 2000s. There were nearly twice as many white victims killed by black assailants: 8,503 in the 1980s, and 8,530 in the 2000s.
• Why isn’t Stevie Wonder boycotting California? Wonder says he won’t play in Florida until it “abolishes” its stand-your-ground law. But California, the state where he lives, also allows a stand-your-ground defense in murder trials.
When defendants claim to have killed someone in self-defense, California juries are instructed that “a defendant is not required to retreat. He or she is entitled to stand his or her ground and defend himself or herself and, if reasonably necessary, to pursue an assailant until the danger of [death or serious injury] has passed. This is so even if safety could have been achieved by retreating.”
Although it’s not clear that it had much to do with Zimmerman’s acquittal, critics of stand-your-ground have delighted in labeling it a redneck Frankenstein unleashed by Florida and the NRA. In fact, it’s neither.
The old legal standard that the potential victim of a crime must first retreat if possible — the so-called Castle Doctrine, which oddly drew its name from its biggest exception, for victims attacked in their own homes — began to erode over a century ago at the hands of American judges who believed it was too narrow.
As early as 1877, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that “a person, being without fault and in a place where he has a right to be,” had the right to “repel [attackers] by force. ” Since then, elements of stand-your-ground have been embedded in dozens of state legal codes, either by legislation or judicial doctrine.
And while the NRA has certainly put resources into strengthening stand-your-ground around the country in recent years, it has done so with the enthusiastic support of liberals. Feminist legal thinkers who believed the old Castle Doctrine discriminated against domestic-violence victims helped win several key legal battles against it in the 1980s and 1990s.
Barack Obama, when he was in the Illinois Legislature, voted to bolster the state’s 1961 stand-your-ground law. One of the politicians who’s been grabbing the most TV time denouncing Florida’s stand-your-ground law, U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, actually voted for it in 2005 when she was in the state Senate — as did every other senator.
• Trayvon Martin is not Emmett Till. The most nauseatingly overheated rhetoric has been the comparisons of Martin to Emmett Till. Till was a 14-year-old black kid from Chicago who, in the summer of 1955, went to visit relatives in a tiny Mississippi Delta town called Money. He either whistled at or flirted with (accounts vary) a white woman at the counter of a grocery store.
A few nights later, her husband and brother-in-law (and perhaps some of their neighbors, though that’s uncertain) dragged Till from his home, beat him to an unholy pulp, shot him in the head, tied a 70-pount weight to him with barbed wire and dumped him in a river.
When his body was fished out of the water three days later, the photos — published in Ebony magazine — made America vomit. Well, that part of America outside Money, Mississippi, where the men who killed Till were acquitted by jurors who deliberated just over an hour and confessed it wouldn’t have taken that long if they hadn’t paused to have a soda.
The murderers, once they were safely protected by the constitutional sanction against double jeopardy, boasted of their own guilt. And several jurors admitted they voted for acquittal because they didn’t believe killing black people was a jailable offense.
In what conceivable way does that story resemble the Trayvon Martin case? Zimmerman didn’t know Martin, has no history of racism and, when he called police to report what he thought was a suspicious character in his neighborhood, wasn’t even sure the person was black. Martin wasn’t dragged from his home by a mob but was killed during an altercation in which Zimmerman says he feared for his life and there was little evidence to contradict him.
And in post-verdict interviews, the Zimmerman jurors have come across not as flippant racists but thoughtful citizens who were agonized by their decision but did their best to enforce the law as they understood it. You may think they got it wrong. But that doesn’t mean they were a lynch mob, or that 2013 America is 1955 Mississippi.