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READER’S EDITORIAL: WHO WAS STANDING HIS GROUND? THE CASE OF TRAYVON MARTIN




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“…The Florida Stand-Your-Ground law should be applied such that any injuries sustained by Zimmerman were the result of Martin’s standing his ground, not the reverse. However, Americans in general should question the very premise of such laws”.—Joel A. Harrison
 
By Joel A. Harrison, PhD, MPH
 
June 3, 2012 (San Diego) -- By now most people know the basic facts of the Trayvon Martin case. On February 26, George Zimmerman, member of a neighborhood watch, spotted Martin entering a gated community where Martin and his father were visiting the father’s fiancée. Martin was returning from purchasing Skittles at a local convenience store and was talking with his girlfriend on his cell phone.

Zimmerman phoned the police dispatcher about seeing someone acting suspicious in the rain, “just walking around looking about.” The dispatcher asked if Zimmerman was following him and advised, “You don’t need to do that.” Zimmerman said “Okay”; but didn’t stay put.
 
There are various versions of what happened next. According to Martin’s girlfriend, Martin told her there was a man he described as "crazy and creepy” watching him. In any case, it was Zimmerman who followed Martin. Zimmerman was not a uniformed police office and had no legal authority.
 
A stand-your-ground law allows a person to use force in self-defense when there is reasonable belief of a threat, without an obligation to retreat first.  In some cases, that may include deadly force in public areas. Zimmerman certainly wasn’t threatened by Martin if he had stayed in or by his car waiting for the police; but it would be reasonable to infer that Martin had a “reasonable belief of a threat” when a strange man, possibly displaying a weapon, followed him. Even if Zimmerman had identified himself being with the neighborhood watch, he had no legal authority and it could have been a ruse for a mugging.
 
Why has no one even considered that if the tables had been turned and during a struggle the gun had gone off and killed Zimmerman, that it was Martin who had the affirmative defense of “standing your ground”?
 
BLAMING THE VICTIM:
 
Many of the news outlets were inundated with reports of “hoodies” as representing gangbangers and assorted criminal types. I had never heard the term “hoodie”; but certainly knew what a hooded sweatshirt was. I’ve worn them most of my life. As the Wikipedia article “Hoodie” states: “Among the general US population, they [hoodies] are commonly worn while partaking in outdoor activities or as casual dress and are a near-ubiquitous fashion item for children, teenagers and young adults. Hoodies have become mainstream fashion transcending the hood’s original utilitarian purpose.”
 
So why was our mass media playing up the hoodie angle? Was it to blame the victim as if wearing a hoodie was legitimate grounds for Zimmerman interpreting Martin’s behavior as suspicious? Does that make any one of us who happens to be wearing a hoodie and, perhaps, talking on a cell phone suspicious? Imagine that someone noticed that many muggers when caught were wearing running shoes and then tried to equate running shoes with muggers. Again, as with a hooded sweatshirt, I often wear running shoes and so does the majority of Americans. The logical approach is to start with what a population in general does and then determine if certain individuals differ from the norm; not to generalize from a specific category of individuals.
 
There were also reports that Martin’s autopsy found traces of marijuana in his blood. Traces of marijuana could be found if someone had simply been in the vicinity of another smoking marijuana; but even if Martin had used marijuana, trace amounts would not have affected his behavior and would not have been grounds for Zimmerman’s suspicion. And the use of marijuana by a teenager or alcohol (illegal for minors) certainly does not indicate they are bad kids and in the Martin case certainly does not indicate that he brought this on himself.
 
Finally, the media has mentioned Martin’s school performance, not exactly a stellar student. Teenage years can be difficult and kids are erratic; but, again, school performance is irrelevant.
 
In fact, hoodies, trace marijuana, and school performance are all irrelevant to this case. On the night of February 26, Martin was walking while talking with his girlfriend on the cell phone, something done by most of us at one time or another. Zimmerman got out of his car and followed him after being told by the police dispatcher not to. Even if the dispatcher had said nothing, it was Martin who was being followed by a strange armed man, it was Martin who was threatened, and it was Martin who had the right to “stand his ground.”
 
STAND-YOUR-GROUND LAWS AND THE RIGHT TO SELF-DEFENSE:
 
In a book by Richard Maxwell Brown, a Professor of History at the University of Oregon, he describes the evolution of laws of self-defense in the U.S. (No Duty To Retreat: Violence and Values in American History and Society, University of Oklahoma Press, 1991). According to Brown:
 
The English common law of homicide . . . supported “the idea of all homicides as public wrongs.” In England the burden was on the one accused of a homicide to prove his innocence. The plea of self-defense was eyed most skeptically. The presumption against the accused killer stemmed from the fear . . . that “the right to defend may be mistaken as the right to kill.” Before the court in the English common-law tradition would countenance killing in self-defense two essential tests had to be met: that of retreat or avoidance and that of “reasonable determination of necessity.”  . . . The test of retreat or avoidance went back to the ancient English common-law doctrine that it was necessary to retreat “to the wall” at one’s back before one could legitimately kill in self-defense (pp 4-5).
 
English common law is the basis of American jurisprudence and Brown’s narrative describes the changes in law that led to our current “stand-your-ground” laws. The “retreat to the wall” doctrine is the basis for self-defense laws in every other Western Industrialized Democracy with the U.S. the only exception. In turn, the U.S. is probably the most violent of any of the Western developed industrialized democracies with murder rates ranging from five times that of Sweden to four times that of France and more than three times that of Canada. Our ethnic diversity does not explain it as countries such as France and Canada have as high a proportion of immigrants or children of immigrants as we do.
 
According to the Wikipedia article “Stand Your Ground Law”:  “Stand-your-ground laws are frequently criticized and called “shoot first” laws by critics.  In Florida, the law has resulted in self-defense claims tripling. The law’s critics argue that Florida’s law makes it very difficult to prosecute cases against people who shoot others and then claim self-defense. The shooter can argue they felt threatened, and in most cases, the only witness who could have argued otherwise is the victim who was shot and killed.  Before passage of the law, Miami Police Chief John
F. Timoney called the law unnecessary and dangerous in that ‘whether it’s trick-or-treaters or kids playing in the yard of someone who doesn’t want them there or some drunk guy stumbling into the wrong house, you’re encouraging people to possibly use deadly physical force where it shouldn’t be used.”
 
One tragic example was the Yoshihiro Hattori case. Hattori was a 16-year-old Japanese exchange student residing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. According to the Wikipedia article “Yoshihiro Hattori:”
 
Two months into his stay in the United States, he received an invitation, along with Webb Haymaker, his homestay brother, to a Halloween party organized for Japanese exchange students on October 17, 1992. Hattori went dressed in a tuxedo in imitation of John Travolta from Saturday Night Fever. Upon their arrival in the quiet working class neighborhood where the party was held, the boys mistook the Peairses’ residence for their intended destination due to the similarity of the address and the Halloween decorations on the outside of the house, and proceeded to step out of their car and walk to the front door.
 
Hattori and Haymaker rang the front doorbell but, seemingly receiving no response, began to walk back to their car. Meanwhile, inside the house, their arrival had not gone unnoticed. Bonnie Peairs had peered out the side door and saw them. Mrs. Peairs, startled, retreated inside, locked the door, and said to her husband, “Rodney, get your gun.” Hattori and Haymaker were walking to their car when the carport door was opened again, this time by Mr. Peairs. He was armed with a loaded and cocked .44 magnum revolver. He pointed it at Hattori, and yelled “Freeze.” Simultaneously, Hattori, likely thinking he said “please,” stepped back towards the house, saying “We’re here for the party.” Haymaker, seeing the weapon, shouted after Hattori, but Peairs fired his weapon at point blank range at Hattori, hitting him in the chest, and then ran back inside. Neither Mr. Peairs nor his wife came out of their house until the police arrived, about 40 minutes after the shooting. Mrs. Peairs shouted to a neighbor to "go away" when the neighbor called for help. One of the Peairses' children later told police that her mother asked, "Why did you shoot him?"
 
During the trail the district attorney asked Peairs why when safe in his house he didn’t just call the police, asked him if he heard anyone trying to break in to which he answered “no”; but still he went outside, an innocent child was dead and the jury acquitted him. So Chief Timoney’s comment about trick-or-treaters wasn’t hyperbole; it was a tragic fact!
 
Many consider the United States the most religious nation among the Western Industrialized Democracies. We fight over crosses in public spaces. One can’t walk far without finding a church and our media, TV and radio, are flooded with religious programs. Yet, both the New and Old Testaments regard human life as sacred, that it has an intrinsic worth. The taking of a human life should be the absolute last resort when no other means are possible. With the Yoshihiro Hattori case, Peairs was safely in his home and could easily have phoned the police; but the jury decided that he had the right to use deadly force anywhere on his property. Not because he was actually threatened; but just because he subjectively perceived a threat. In the Trayvon Martin case, Zimmerman was not threatened. He was safely beside or inside his car with the police on the way, yet, against advice, he followed Martin.  It was Martin, not Zimmerman, who was threatened.
 
In the Trayvon Martin case, the Florida Stand-Your-Ground Law should be applied such that any injuries sustained by Zimmerman were the result of Martin’s standing his ground, not the reverse. However, Americans in general should question the very premise of such laws. Not only do such laws create an affirmative defense for taking of human life based on an individual’s subjective fears or, worse, to protect the actual aggressor as the only witness still alive; but they also display a basic contempt for the value and dignity of human life, a betrayal of our Judaic-Christian heritage.

Joel A. Harrison, PhD, MPH, a native San Diegan, is a retired epidemiologist.  He has worked in the areas of preventive medicine, infectious diseases, medical outcomes research, and evidence-based clinical practice guidelines. The opinions in this editorial reflect the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of East County Magazine. To submit an editorial, contact editor@eastcountymagazine.org