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America's 'stand your ground' horror story

In the case of George Zimmerman, the law kept him out of prison. Will Ralph Yarl's shooter walk free as well?

You have heard this horror story too many times before: A Black teenager shot down during a mundane errand.

In 2012, it was a quick trip to a convenience store. The teenager was 17 and he was on his way back to his father’s place with a bottle of juice and a bag of Skittles. He was wearing a hoodie. His name was Trayvon Martin.

And a 28-year-old neighbor, George Zimmerman, claimed he was acting in self-defense when he shot Trayvon.

There had been a series of robberies in the area. He said he shot Trayvon because he was afraid. He feared bodily harm. Months passed before Zimmerman was actually arrested and charged. Zimmerman was not charged on the spot because police said they could not disprove his version of the events: That he was defending himself; That he stood his ground.

After weeks of protesters sounding the alarm, Zimmerman was finally charged with second degree murder. Eventually, he was acquitted.

In 2020, a 25-year-old Black man went for an afternoon jog in a coastal Georgia town. His workout caught the attention of three local men who grabbed their guns, hopped in a truck and began to follow the jogger. The men said there had been a string of robberies in the area. They said they were scared. They said they thought the jogger was the thief.

The jogger was Ahmaud Arbery. The men chased him down, and shot him dead. Still, they also walked away from that shooting as free men. They claimed they were defending themselves under the state’s stand your ground laws.

More than 10 weeks passed before the men were arrested. They were eventually convicted of murder.

“Stand your ground” laws exploded after 2012, when Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. Laws in at least 28 states and Puerto Rico allow that there is no duty to retreat an attacker in any place in which one is lawfully present. Instead, a person who reasonably believes they are in danger of death or serious harm can use deadly force.

But that law tends to exacerbate some potentially fatal racial disparities. First, there is the question of whose presence in this country is often deemed suspicious or questionable, and whose rarely is.

And then there is how the law is applied. According to the Urban Institute, when white Americans in a “Stand your ground” state shoot a Black person dead and claim self-defense, the killing is ruled a justifiable homicide 34% of the time. 

But when the races are reversed — when it’s a Black shooter and a White victim — that rate plummets. Only 3% of those homicides are deemed justifiable.

Which brings us to last week, on April 14. A Black 16-year-old is sent on a quick trip to pick up his twin little brothers, both 11 years old. He rang the doorbell, but he had the wrong address for the house in Kansas City, Missouri. Another state with a stand your ground law.

The 84-year-old white homeowner, Andrew Lester, claims he thought it was a break-in and was ‘“scared to death” due to “the male’s size” and his own advanced age. For the record, the “male” in this case is a high school student named Ralph Yarl.

Lester claims that, because he was scared to death, he immediately shot Yarl in the head through a glass door. Ralph was taken to the hospital where he received surgery to remove the bullets. He was eventually released and is recovering at home.

Lester, for his part, was detained the night of the shooting but then released hours later, with no charges. He claimed self-defense in a stand your ground state.

After a weekend of protests, Lester was finally charged on Monday with felony assault and armed criminal action. His decision to shoot follows a clear pattern in stand your ground states: A white gunman shoots a Black child or young man because of misplaced suspicion and fear.

In the case of George Zimmerman, the law kept him out of prison. Will Andrew Lester walk free as well?

This is an adapted excerpt from the April 18 episode of “Alex Wagner Tonight.”