The Trayvon Martin case and how the definition of justice differs across America.

During his trial, George Zimmerman's lawyers opted to avoid invoking the controversial "Stand Your Ground" law that the state of Florida approved in 2005, which allows people to "meet force with force, including deadly force," rather than retreat from a confrontation when they are in fear for their lives. Still, the law has been at the center of the Trayvon Martin case since the teen's death on February 26, 2012. It ultimately gave Zimmerman the cover to pursue Martin and use deadly force that fateful night. Police initially waited 44 days after the shooting to arrest Zimmerman, in part based on his "right to use force" under this Florida law. Most of all, it created a reasonable doubt about the motives and circumstances surrounding Martin's death that led to a not guilty verdict. 

On one of the final days of the trial, jurors learned that Zimmerman had studied the law in a criminal litigation course. Though Zimmerman has publicly said he had never heard of the "Stand Your Ground" statute, his course instructor called him "one of the better students" in a class that often covered the very defense Zimmerman used. And as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, the jury instructions were clearly informed by the existence of the Florida law.

The nation is now embroiled in a heated debate about these laws, which are in place in at least 21 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. (These state laws have been particularly in flux in the year and a half since Martin's death, but the trend seems to be decidedly upward). The states that have enacted self-defense laws are mainly clustered in the South and Midwest, but Northeast swing states New Hampshire and Pennsylvania also have similar statutes. At least nine states explicitly use "stand your ground" language (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and South Carolina).

In June, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights announced an inquiry into the role that racial bias plays in "Stand Your Ground" cases. New data from the Urban Institute points a bit more empirically to the strength of this relationship.

Last year, John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center and sometime Cities contributor, ran the numbers on homicides that were ruled justifiable. Using the FBI's Supplemental Homicide Report for 2005-2009, he looked at the relationships between the case outcome, the race of those involved and the presence of "Stand Your Ground" laws in each state. Roman ran a regression analysis on the data, allowing him to compare several variables at once and determine the probable relationships between the variables, even with the small sample size of justifiable homicides. Roman recently updated his study with data from 2010, the most recent year available, after several more states put "Stand Your Ground" statutes on the books. His list of states with such laws differs slightly from the NCSL data pictured in the map above, as he included Alaska and South Dakota, bringing the total to 23 states. A total of 53,000 homicides were included in the updated study.

Roman's analysis points to a clear geographic pattern. Though less than 2 percent of homicides are eventually ruled to have been committed in self-defense, that number contains a significant split between "Stand Your Ground" states and those without such statutes. In Florida and other "Stand Your Ground" states, a homicide is nearly twice as likely to be ruled an act of self defense (2.6 percent, rather than 1.46 percent).

Race also plays a role in Roman's analysis, suggesting that the Zimmerman verdict is hardly unique. The data give credence to claims that such laws introduce bias against black victims and in favor of white shooters, as many have contended. In cases where the shooter was black and the victim white, there was hardly any difference between "Stand Your Ground" and other states: Only 1.4 percent of these homicides were deemed justified in "Stand Your Ground" states, in comparison to 1.1 percent in states without a statute. But, the situation is substantially different when the roles, and races, of shooter and victim are reversed. For murders with a white shooter and a black victim, 16.9 percent were ruled justified in "Stand Your Ground" states. Only 9.5 percent were in states that have no "Stand Your Ground" law on the books. 

Roman compiled his analysis in the graph below (an interactive version can be found here): 

"The odds that a white-on-black homicide is ruled to have been justified is more than 11 times the odds a black-on-white shooting is ruled justified," Roman concluded. "No dataset will ever be sufficient to prove that race alone explains these disparities. But there are disparities in whether homicides are ruled to be self-defense, and race is clearly an important part of the story." 

In the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, Roman provided me with his more recent, more fine-grained analysis of the relationships between shooters and victims, including the types of weapons involved. The racial (black-white) divide was strongest in just the kind of shooting that Zimmerman committed: a fatal shooting involving a handgun and two strangers of different races, neither of whom is in law enforcement. Even in states without "Stand Your Ground" laws, the numbers are stark; 29.3 percent of white-on-black shootings are ruled justifiable, while only 2.9 percent of black-on-white shootings are. But in states that have enacted "Stand Your Ground" laws, the situation is worse: 35.9 percent of white-on-black shootings are ultimately deemed to be self-defense. In the reverse situation, black-on-white shootings, only 3.4 percent of cases have ended with the same verdict. 

Based on this new analysis, Roman tells me via email that: "The criminal justice system is rife with racial disparities. From searches of motor vehicles during traffic stops, to stop-and-frisk encounters and arrests, to sentencing and parole decisions, black Americans – especially young black males – come in contact with the police and courts far more often than their share of the population would predict. The chasm in justifiable homicide rulings, however, is vastly larger than other disparities and deserves intense scrutiny."

The Zimmerman verdict is clearly not an isolated incident. It instead reflects the deep and enduring ways that race has become entangled with how America views, treats, and prosecutes crime – a problem that is not going away.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Equity

    Why Not Just Stop Paying Rent?

    Because of coronavirus, millions of tenants won’t be able to write rent checks. But calls for a rent holiday often ignore the longer-term economic effects.

  2. photo: a For Rent sign in a window in San Francisco.

    Do Landlords Deserve a Coronavirus Bailout, Too?

    Some renters and homeowners are getting financial assistance during the economic disruption from the coronavirus pandemic. What about landlords?

  3. Coronavirus

    Why Asian Countries Have Succeeded in Flattening the Curve

    To help flatten the curve in the Covid-19 outbreak, officials at all levels of government are asking people to stay home. Here's what’s worked, and what hasn't.

  4. Equity

    We'll Need To Reopen Our Cities. But Not Without Making Changes First.

    We must prepare for a protracted battle with coronavirus. But there are changes we can make now to prepare locked-down cities for what’s next.

  5. An African healthcare worker takes her time washing her hands due to a virus outbreak/.

    Why You Should Stop Joking That Black People Are Immune to Coronavirus

    There’s a fatal history behind the claim that African Americans are more resistant to diseases like Covid-19 or yellow fever.