Editor’s Note: Sybrina Fulton, of Miami Gardens, mother of slain teen Trayvon Martin, testified last Tuesday before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee reviewing the “public safety implications” of the "Stand Your Ground Law." Below, an edited version of her prepared statement.
For a moment, I would like to ask that you try to step away from your roles as United States Senators and to simply think as human beings — husbands and wives, and most importantly parents. Imagine how you would feel if you lost a child or a loved one to random violence and then watched their admitted killer evade justice. Words could never capture the feeling of devastation losing my son caused me, nor can they explain the betrayal I felt as I watched his killer go free.
The national and even international outrage over the acquittal of our son’s killer has led to bipartisan calls for “Stand Your Ground” laws to be reviewed across the nation.
The record is clear: these laws are open to abuse and they encourage violence. The law should be changed to include language that clarifies its original intent, as articulated by Florida’s former Gov. Jeb Bush, who signed “Stand Your Ground” into law. Regarding our son’s killing, Gov. Bush said “‘Stand Your Ground’ means stand your ground. It doesn’t mean chase after somebody who’s turned their back.” Public safety should be a bipartisan issue. Gun control is an emotional issue on all sides, and understandably so. My father, who was a former police officer, always kept a firearm in our home and I grew up around guns. I appreciate the feelings of those who choose to legally arm themselves so that they can protect themselves and their families. I do not want to see the responsible ownership or use of firearms restricted in any way. I only want to see the laws surrounding self-defense clarified, so that they are applied logically and, most importantly, consistently.
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Currently, poorly worded self-defense laws create an environment that encourages and enables violent, armed individuals to kill people, including children. The number of homicides ruled “justifiable” each year in Florida has nearly tripled since “Stand Your Ground” took effect.
Many people have mistakenly assumed that because my son’s killer did not apply for “‘Stand Your Ground” immunity during the trial, that this law was not a factor in his death. The truth is that the “Stand Your Ground” law in its entirety creates many opportunities for people to commit terrible acts of violence and evade justice. By being unclear in when and how it is applied, “Stand Your Ground’” in its current form is far too open to abuse. Although we may never know for sure what was going through the head of our son’s killer, we do know that our son’s killer studied “Stand Your Ground” closely. That knowledge may have emboldened him to stalk my son and use lethal force even in a situation where it seemed unnecessary and certainly avoidable.
In our son’s case, the prosecution’s case was severely undermined by the lack of an appropriate initial investigation by the Sanford Police Department. When our son’s killer initially claimed self-defense under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, the State Attorney’s office and the Sanford Police Department failed to arrest George Zimmerman or to treat him as a person who had just committed a homicide. Instead investigators treated him like the blameless victim.
How can we allow someone to escape liability for killing a total stranger he stalked, chased, and confronted, based solely on the killer’s word? It is not logical to allow a person to commit a homicide and then turn around and allow them to speak for the deceased party whom they just killed. “Stand Your Ground” thus rewards killers for silencing their victims and claiming the deceased party was the aggressor in the matter.
“Stand Your Ground” was also a factor in the way in which the jury in our son’s case applied the law. In Trayvon’s case, Juror B37 specifically mentioned “Stand Your Ground” multiple times in explaining her decision to set Trayvon’s killer free. The laws relating to self-defense, which determine the guilt or innocence of killers, should be clear and easily understood by those tasked with applying them.
Everyone should be able to feel safe walking in public without fear that someone might randomly stalk, confront and kill them and get away with it because they are not around to tell the court what happened. When enacting legislation, it would be wise to follow the medical principle to “first do no harm”. If “Stand Your Ground” is causing more unnecessary deaths and enabling people to get away with murder, it should be fixed. What choice are we making as a community and as a nation with these laws — life or death? Sadly, Trayvon is one of many young people whose lives were taken by violence.
The “Stand Your Ground” law is important in the tone it sets and the message it sends. When an armed adult sees a minor in his neighborhood who he thinks does not belong, do we want the adult to follow him with a gun? When people can easily avoid a confrontation, do we want the law to empower them to go looking for one? Are we a nation that values the rights and lives of our children or not? Do we want laws that protect our children from gunmen, or do we want laws that protect gunmen from accountability?
I am a mother, not a lawyer or a legislator. I don’t pretend to know all the details of the law, policy or politics surrounding “Stand Your Ground”. What I do know, and what I am reminded of every day, is that my son was murdered. He was walking home with a snack and minding his own business when a stranger stalked him, chased him after he ran, confronted him and finally killed him. I believe in my heart that “Stand Your Ground” shares responsibility for what has happened to my family. Our family has dedicated our lives to changing “Stand Your Ground” laws in the hope that other families might be spared what we have gone through.
Many terrible injustices were considered “legal” at one time or another, but then people saw the light and changed the law. In America in 2013 it is my belief that the people that you represent do not wish to see immorality justified with legality. To safeguard life and the liberties that we all appreciate so much, we must remain eternally vigilant against the great dangers of legalized injustice.