George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin. Marissa Alexander received a 20-year sentence for firing what she said were warning shots.
To some, those contrasting fates are evidence enough that Stand Your Ground laws are applied in a way that’s anything but race-neutral. Alexander, an African-American woman from Jacksonville, Florida, unsuccessfully invoked the law last year after being charged for firing into a wall during a confrontation with her husband, who, her lawyers said, had a history of abuse. Attorneys for Zimmerman, whose father is white and whose mother is Hispanic, didn’t use the law in his defense, but it was included in instructions to the jury, and one juror cited it as a factor in Zimmerman’s acquittal.
But anecdotal evidence can sometimes shed more heat than light. After all, Stand Your Ground can work the other way, too. Consider Shane Huse, a white resident of Citrus County, Florida, who in 2009 was fatally shot in the neck and shoulder—with his two small children sitting in his nearby truck—after arguing with a neighbor, Oscar Delbono, over Huse’s two pitbulls. A witness said Huse was turning to leave when he was shot, but Delbono, a Hispanic, wasn’t even charged.
“It is a tragic, unfortunate set of circumstances that occurred, but given the state of the law there’s no criminal prosecution,” a prosecutor wrote.
Attorney General Eric Holder last week suggested Stand Your Ground laws—which exist in various forms in 25 states—are of particular concern to African-Americans, telling the NAACP they “sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods.” And in the wake of Martin’s killing last year, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) launched a probe, still ongoing, into concerns about racial bias in how the laws are applied.
Nor is there evidence that the laws have a deterrent effect. A recent Texas A&M study found that after states passed Stand Your Ground measures, they saw no drop in robberies, burglaries, and aggravated assaults, and murders actually increased.
“All the data shows it makes people kill people more often, and it makes black people die more often,” Michael Yaki, the commissioner leading the USCCR probe, told msnbc.
A close look at the range of available data on potential racial disparities in Stand Your Ground offers a more nuanced picture but largely supports the claim of racial disparities. At least in Florida, white defendants appear no more likely than black ones to successfully invoke Stand Your Ground. But there’s evidence that a Stand Your Ground defense in the Sunshine State is more likely to work when the victim is black. And nationwide, Stand Your Ground-style defenses seem more likely to benefit whites charged with killing blacks than vice versa. Still, none of this proves outright racial bias, though it might well suggest it.
Last year, in response to the Martin killing, The Wall Street Journal used FBI data to look at “justifiable homicides” across the country between 2000 and 2010. The paper found that cases in which the killer was white and the victim black represented only 3.1% of all homicides–but 15.6% of justifiable homicides. By contrast, cases where the killer was black and the victim white made up 7.1% of all homicides, but just 3.4% of justifiable homicides.
A study conducted last year by John Roman of the Urban Institute, using FBI data on justifiable homicides from 2005 to 2009, yielded a similar result. A brief follow-up study done by Roman on behalf of PBS Frontline found that in Stand Your Ground states, white-on-black homicides are 354% more likely to be deemed justifiable than white-on-white homicides. In non-Stand-Your-Ground states, that figure declined to “only” 250%.
The Tampa Bay Times got more ambiguous results last year when it used news reports, court records, and interviews with prosecutors and defense lawyers to compile a database—which it called the most comprehensive of its kind—of nearly 200 Stand Your Ground cases in Florida.
When the paper focused on the race of the victim, it found a clear disparity: with a black victim, 73% of defendants invoking Stand Your Ground faced no penalty. With a white victim, that figure dropped to 59%.
But when the paper focused on the race of the killer, it found no such difference. In fact, black defendants went free 66% of the time in fatal cases, compared to 61% of the time for whites—though the paper noted that since most killings involve people of the same race, the difference might be explained by the lower rate of convictions when the victim is black.
As for the relatively small number of cases when the killer and victim were of different races, the paper found that four of the five blacks who killed a white went free, compared to five of the six whites who killed a black.
But even if there are disparities in how Stand Your Ground plays out, it’s not clear that racial bias is the cause. For instance, The Tampa Bay Times noted that black victims were more likely than white ones to be carrying a weapon, as well as to be committing a crime, when killed.
Race aside, it’s hard to dispute that Stand Your Ground laws have often greatly complicated the task of law enforcement, and contributed to some seemingly perverse outcomes. A Florida man walked free after shooting to death two unarmed men during a dispute over a sailboat, and another got off despite shooting a man who was lying on the ground, according to a witness.
Editor’s note: George Zimmerman has sued NBC Universal for defamation. The company strongly denies the allegation.