There are some words that have definitive definitions. Most nouns bring to mind a specific object, for example: coffee, foot, flower. But other words are more subjective, like ‘reasonable’. What seems ‘reasonable’ to one person may not seem so to another. When a man’s life is at stake, or a life has been taken by another, then the definition of the word ‘reasonable’ becomes critical.
Florida, famous for its Stand Your Ground law and its most infamous use as a defense in 2012 when George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed black teen, Trayvon Martin, is in the process of altering the law. As it stands, the law states that a person who kills another in ‘self-defense’ can avoid going to trial if he proves at a pretrial hearing that he was acting in reasonable fear of death or great bodily harm. The key concept here being that the burden of proof is on the defendant to prove that he was acting in genuine self-defense.
A new bill that would switch the burden of proof away from the defendant is in the works. The controversial changes to the state’s self-defense law passed the Senate 23 to 15 and is expected to be put to a vote in the House next week. Governor Rick Scott is expected to then sign it into law. If enacted, the defendant would no longer be responsible to prove that he acted in a reasonable manner because he believed his life was in danger, but rather it would be the burden of prosecutors to prove that the defendant did NOT act in self-defense. It would make the prosecution responsible for proving that someone who used deadly force instead of retreating from an attack was not behaving reasonably.
But this leads to a subjective argument, a slippery slope argument about what is reasonable and by whose definition. Let us take a closer look at a couple of cases.
We already know of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case, where neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman told authorities he was acting in self-defense when he shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager. Never mind that when Zimmerman first noticed the teen, he was sitting safely in his vehicle and said, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something.” He based his decision solely on the looks of a teenage boy because the boy was black and was wearing, as all teenagers do, a hoodie.
But consider this case: A former police officer got into an argument with another man in a movie theater. He asked the man to stop texting during the previews prior to the movie, the exchange apparently got heated, the man threw popcorn at the former officer, and the former officer shot and killed the man. He … threw … popcorn … and he paid with his life. How, I ask you, is a gun an appropriate response to a handful of popcorn??? In this case, fortunately, the judge was diligent and took the time to investigate the crime scene and match it, or fail to match it, to the claims of self-defense by the defendant, former police officer Curtis Reeves. The judge ruled that, despite Reeves’ claim of a ‘life and death struggle’, the “defendant’s testimony was significantly at odds with the physical evidence and other witness testimony”. The judge ruled that the case did not qualify as a Stand Your Ground case and Reeves will go on trial for second-degree murder.
Which brings me back to that pesky question of ‘reasonableness’. Was Zimmerman acting reasonably when he made the decision to exit his car without contacting local police, then confront young Martin? Or did he have other options, such as calling local police and awaiting their arrival, meanwhile remaining safely inside his vehicle? Was Reeves acting reasonably when he responded with lethal force to a handful of popcorn? If we are to give these people the opportunity to get off scot-free after taking the life of another in so-called ‘self-defense’, then we should be able to, at the very least, expect them to prove that they were in danger of losing their own life if they did not act. Anything less is simply unacceptable. The judge in the Reeves case wisely determined that Reeves did not act reasonably, but another judge might have seen it another way, might have defined ‘reasonable’ in another way.
In addition to relieving people who have killed another from having to justify their actions, the law has racially discriminatory undertones. The American legal system’s handling of violent self-defense has long favored white, property-owning men. Nonwhite, female, poor or gender-nonconforming people have always been more likely to be punished for defending themselves and less likely to see the courts come to their aid when they are harmed. We need look no farther than the murder of Freddie Gray and the fact that nobody … not a single person … was convicted of his murder, to understand that racism is alive and well in the U.S.
The Stand Your Ground law, one form or another of which is in force in some 27 states in the U.S., including Florida, is sometimes otherwise known as the “Line in the Sand” law, or the “No Duty to Retreat” law. In contrast, 17 states actually have “Duty to Retreat” laws that specify you can’t resort to deadly force in self-defense if you can safely avoid the risk of harm or death by running away or other evasive, less deadly measures. Other states have a modified version of Stand Your Ground, known as Castle Doctrine, which allows a person to use deadly force in self-defense on their own property, such as their home or car, but not in a public venue.
Now, let me ask you, dear reader, a question: Confronted with a person who you simply ‘thought’ was going to do you harm, as in both the Zimmerman and Reeves cases, what would you do? Would you try to avoid, to leave the area, or would you shoot the other person? For me, it is a no-brainer, as I do not own a gun and never will, but with more guns in the U.S. than there are people, and some of the most liberal gun laws in the world, it’s a pretty safe bet that almost any adult we encounter may well have a gun tucked into his belt or stashed in her purse.
The latest bill, shifting the burden of proof in Stand Your Ground cases in Florida, only adds to the idea that individuals are not responsible for their fellow mankind, but are authorized to act in any way they deem fit, even taking another life, to make themselves feel safe. These are not laws that make us safer, rather these are laws that say if a person thinks we don’t look just so, he may shoot first and ask questions later. This was the code of the Olde West … it should not be the code of the 21st century in what was once considered a civilized nation.
Up next … Insane New Gun Laws