Trayvon Martin’s mother testified before a Senate panel Tuesday, urging states to amend their “stand-your-ground” laws.
Sybrina Fulton described how her son was walking home unarmed in Sanford, Fla., when he was shot and killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman just three weeks after the family had celebrated Martin’s 17th birthday.
Zimmerman’s July trial captured the nation’s attention and sparked heated debate over stand-your-ground laws after a jury found him not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter.
A stand-your-ground law allows a potential crime victim in fear of grave harm to use deadly force in public places; it also eliminates the duty to retreat. Between 2000 and 2010, at least 22 states enacted some form of a stand-your-ground law.
Although the Zimmerman defense did not mention such laws at his trial, one of the six jurors in the trial – known only as juror B-37 – told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that Florida’s stand-your-ground law was key in the jury’s verdict.
Fulton said she attended the hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee “to let you know how important it is that we amend this stand-your-ground because it did not work in my case. The person that shot and killed my son is walking the streets today, and this law does not work.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who presided over the hearing, cited Texas A&M University research suggesting about 600 homicides a year could be linked to stand-your-ground laws; the research found no indication that the laws deter crime.
Durbin said the laws encourage a “shoot first” mentality, increase the likelihood that confrontations will escalate to deadly violence, and make prosecuting crimes more difficult.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, however, questioned the purpose of the hearing, saying the federal government has no authority over state self-defense laws – and that states should make their own judgments. Cruz also said self-defense is a bedrock liberty and the stand-your-ground laws apply only to cases in which there is an imminent attack that could cause death or serious injury, not to violent aggressors.
Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, testified to the Senate committee that stand-your-ground laws promote a “wild West environment in our communities where individuals play the roles of judge, jury and executioner.”
Fudge, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, also argued that the laws disproportionately harm African-Americans. She said studies show a white person shooting an African-American is more often found justified in stand-your-ground states than an African-American shooting a white person.
John R. Lott Jr., president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, urged the senators to consider that the vast majority of cases in which the defendant invokes stand-your-ground protection involve crimes between people of the same race; he cited a Tampa Bay Tribune study of 112 Florida cases that found 90 percent of African-American victims were killed by another African-American.
“The people who are most likely to be victims of crimes are poor blacks who benefit from the option of being able to protect themselves,” Lott said.
Stand-your-ground laws changed the defendant’s burden of proving that he or she reasonably perceived a threat to presuming the defendant’s perception was reasonable, said David LaBahn, the president and CEO of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
And given the prejudices that many Americans hold, laws that hinge on an individual’s subjective belief are likely to produce prejudiced results, he said.
“Because it’s subjective, it allows them to go ahead and believe they’re in danger and do the dramatic thing and take a life,” LaBahn said.
In Florida, a state Senate committee earlier this month approved a bill that would require guidelines and training protocol for neighborhood watch programs, a move that would require amending the stand your ground law.
The bill, sponsored by Sens. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, and Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, won bipartisan support on the Senate Judiciary Committee. It also received nods from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Florida Sheriffs Association, the state public defenders association and the NAACP.
Despite the early success in the Senate, it was too soon to tell if a similar proposal would win support in the lower chamber.