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George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin, and Racial Bias in ‘Justifiable Homicide’ Trials

• July 13, 2013 • 9:39 PM

Supporters of Trayvon Martin rally in Union Square during a "Million Hoodie March" in Manhattan. (PHOTO: DAVID SHANKBONE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

In the 29 states that use the law, stand your ground increases the likelihood of a justified homicide ruling—but only when a white person is accused of killing a black person.

Today a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder. While the decision was ultimately based on self-defense, it is widely argued that Florida’s stand your ground statute, which was initially considered by the defense, and which Zimmerman previously studied in a criminal litigation course despite claims to the contrary, was at play. The statute allows people to use proportionate force in the face of an attack without first trying to retreat or escape. More than 20 other states have such laws.

At MetroTrends, John Roman and Mitchell Downey report their analysis of 4,650 FBI records of homicides in which a person killed a stranger with a handgun. They conclude that stand your ground “tilts the odds in favor of the shooter.” In SYG states, 13.6 percent of homicides were ruled justifiable; in non-SYG states, only 7.2 percent were deemed such. This is strong evidence that rulings of justifiable homicide are more likely under stand your ground.

But which homicides?

The very kind decided in the Zimmerman trial today. A finding of “justifiable homicide” is much more common in the case of a white-on-black killing than any other kind including a white and a black person. At PBS’s request, Roman compared the likelihood of a favorable finding for the defendant in SYG and non-SYG cases, considering the races of the people involved. The data is clear: Compared to white-on-white crimes, stand your ground increases the likelihood of a justifiable homicide ruling, but only when a white person is accused of killing a black person.

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It’s simple: Stand your ground laws increase the chances that a homicide will be considered justifiable because it gives the jurors more leeway to give defendants the benefit of the doubt. But jurors will likely give that benefit of the doubt to certain kinds of defendants and not others. Stand your ground may or may not be a good law in theory but, in practice, it increases racial bias in legal outcomes.


This post originally appeared on Sociological Images, a Pacific Standard partner site.

Lisa Wade
Lisa Wade, Ph.D., holds an M.S. and Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an M.A. in Human Sexuality from New York University. She is an associate professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @lisawade.

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