By Nora Kenty, WLP Summer Intern
In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin verdict, celebrities, pundits, and bloggers have all been commenting on Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which takes self-defense beyond the usual confines of one’s home. The Florida statute states: “A person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if: He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself […].” The statute, similar or identical versions of which are shared by 30 other states, is not only controversial due to its extended definition; it seems to be applied in a highly discriminatory way, as evidenced by a 2011 case in which an African-American woman in Florida was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot in the presence of her abusive husband.
In July of 2010, Marissa Alexander felt she was in great danger when her ex-husband, Rico Gray, became enraged, tried to strangle her and threatened to kill her. She fled to the garage, retrieved a gun, and fired a single warning shot into a wall inside their home. She later said, “I believe when he threatened to kill me, that’s what he was absolutely going to do. Had I not discharged my weapon at that point, I would not be here.” The judge, however, believed that re-entering the house was not consistent with someone in fear of their life, and the jury took only 12 minutes to decide on the 20-year prison sentence for the mother of three.
In both Alexander’s case and the more recent Trayvon Martin case, there have been complaints that the “institutional racism” inherent in Florida and its laws is to blame for the controversial decisions, which both display a significant bias against African Americans. Considering some of the details of Alexander’s case—she had no prior criminal record, did not kill or injure anyone with her warning shot, and was fleeing a lethally abusive man who had previously gone to jail for his violence toward her—a 20-year prison sentence certainly seems unjustified.
The Florida statute has not been found to be unconstitutional in its definition of self-defense. What is problematic is how the law is being applied, and the fact that those needing protection are unable to use the law to get it. This is not the first time a law’s interpretation has had a disproportionately negative effect on a specific minority group or class of women. Unfortunately it has happened before, and in our own state of Pennsylvania. Municipal ordinances governing rental properties punished victims of abuse who called the police on their batterers more than three times in one month. A woman in Norristown named Lakisha Briggs was brutally attacked by her ex-boyfriend, who hit her with a brick and stabbed her in the neck with broken glass. But Briggs had already called the police on her boyfriend twice in the past month, and they said one more incident of what the ordinance classified as “disorderly behavior” would be grounds for her eviction. So she bled on the floor rather than get kicked out of her home, and was eventually hospitalized. The ACLU successfully challenged the ordinance, but many municipalities across the country still enforce similar laws that disproportionately impact victims of domestic abuse.
The stories of Briggs, Alexander, and Trayvon Martin serve as a reminder that in many cases, our legal system punishes the victims of crimes, rather than placing the blame on the shoulders of the perpetrators. Unfortunately, Florida’s “stand your ground” law is only one example of the many unjust laws and ordinances that exist. With such laws coming under increased exposure and scrutiny, perhaps reform efforts soon will yield more fairly enforced legislation.