It’s Not Always Sunny in Florida When You Stand Your Ground

Many an epidemics come and go but depravity still at large. Innocent till proven but guilty still as charged? 

The blindfolded lady is heralded as the symbol for justice because justice is served based on the unbiased presentation of evidence, not on the basis of emotions. You remain innocent till proven guilty.

LadyJustice

After news of Zimmerman’s verdict of not guilty was announced with mixed responses, I couldn’t help do some research in three uniquely different cases of “Stand Your Ground” Law applied in the state of Florida.

I admit my knowledge on US law is limited and I generally keep clear of those category of folks who pretend to be an expert by watching Law and Order or any other [insert specialized profession] drama. However, I assure you that I have tried my best to isolate and understand the functionality of the Stand Your Ground law without any man-made barriers of race, gender, right or left wing politics, as well as any pressuring media hype that exploits human emotions.

In the United States, stand-your-ground law states that a person may justifiably use force in self-defense when there is reasonable belief of an unlawful threat, without an obligation to retreat first.

Based on the historical 1895 ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States in Beard v. U.S.(158 U.S.550 (1895)):

A man assailed on his own grounds, without provocation, by a person armed with a deadly weapon and apparently seeking his life is not obliged to retreat, but may stand his ground and defend himself with such means as are within his control; and so long as there is no intent on his part to kill his antagonist, and no purpose of doing anything beyond what is necessary to save his own life, is not guilty of murder or manslaughter if death results to his antagonist from a blow given him under such circumstances.

http://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/158/550/case.html

Self-defense Law in Florida

To make one thing clear, Zimmerman’s legal team invoked “Justifiable Use of Force” claim (or self-defense) in court to justify that he had no duty to retreat in a place where he is legally allowed to be (in his case, as a neighborhood watchman) when faced with imminent threat. The police could not arrest him because of the state’s Stand Your Ground Law which allowed his self-defense claim to remain valid due to lack of evidence. It was only after significant media attention, petitions, protests and discovery of evidence, that Zimmerman was put on trial for second degree manslaughter.

 Under Chapter 776 of Florida State Statutes, here is a brief understanding of when it is acceptable to have “Justifiable Use of Force.”

776.012 Use of force in defense of person.—A person is justified in using force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force. However, 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 or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony;

For comprehensive overview about the statute, please visit http://floridastandyourground.org/

Punishment awarded in cases of using a gun in Florida

Florida “10-20-life” law was implemented in 1999 and credited with helping to lower the violent crime rate.

10-20-life

Of course, this law isn’t as cut and dry as it sounds. The defendants often get a chance to accept a plea deal and be awarded a lower sentence, sometimes even without a prison sentence.

Let’s take a look at the three unique cases of the law in Florida. As you will see, the outcomes from all these cases transcend racial barriers, age and past criminal history.

  1. In 2009, a white 53-year-old Davenport man, with no criminal history, shot a revolver inside his house to scare his daughter’s 17-year-old boyfriend. The bullet struck a wall and no one was hurt. But under Florida law, Orville Lee Wollard was found guilty by a jury of aggravated assault with a firearm, and is already two years into his “mandatory minimum” sentence of 20 years in prison. Wollard rejected a plea deal that offered probation without serving any prison time. Circuit Judge Donald Jacobsen said he was “duty bound” by the 10-20-life law to impose the harsh sentence.
  2. In 2010, a black 31 year old mother of three, with no criminal history, fired a gun to scare off her husband when she felt he was threatening her. No one was hurt, but a Florida judge was bound by state law to sentence Marissa Alexander to 20 years in prison in 2012. Alexander rejected a plea deal that would have resulted in a three-year prison sentence and chose to go to trial instead. Like Wollard, she took her chances at trial and was convicted of aggravated assault with a firearm.
  3. In 2012, George Zimmerman, a 28 year old multi-racial Hispanic American and community watch coordinator, shot Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American high school student. Zimmerman was tried for second-degree murder and manslaughter and found not guilty on July 13, 2013. Zimmerman was driving in his car when he found Martin walking past the gated fence of the community and claimed that the teenager looked “suspicious.” Zimmerman made a call to local Sanford police about Martin’s activities and the dispatcher recommended that he should not follow behind Martin and wait for the police to handle it. As Martin was fleeing, Zimmerman decided to follow behind Martin anyway, thereby ensuing a violent attack between the two, with grave injuries to Zimmerman and Martin being fatally shot in the chest and dying on the spot. Past record- In 2005, Zimmerman was charged with assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest and in the same year, Zimmerman’s ex-fiance filed a restraining order against him, alleging domestic violence.

Three very different people with two of three being punished based on 10-20-life law and the third being acquitted based on Self-defense claim.

Let’s try to understand the nature of self-defense used in all three aforementioned cases.

Could the defendant have escaped without firing? Was firing a shot absolutely necessary for the defendant’s survival from an attacker?

Case 1: Wollard could have scared away her daughter’s boyfriend without the need to fire a gun. Prosecutors alleged that the bullet created danger and Wollard was aiming for the boyfriend but missed which prevented him from invoking the Stand Your Ground law. Although, the boyfriend did not get hit by the bullet, he could have been killed, they said.

Case 2: Alexander was estranged from her husband, Rico Gray, and had a restraining order against him due to her experience of domestic violence. Nine days before the shooting, Alexander had given birth to their baby. On Aug 1st, 2010, she went to their former home to retrieve the rest of her clothes where Gray was present. An argument ensued, and Alexander said she feared for her life when Gray was coming towards her and was much larger in size than her. She went out to her vehicle and retrieved the gun she legally owned. She came back inside and ended up firing a shot into the wall, which ricocheted into the ceiling. The judge threw out Alexander’s “stand your ground” self-defense claim, noting that she could have run out of the house to escape her husband but instead got the gun and went back inside. A jury deliberated 12 minutes before convicting her.

Here is what Gray testified in court for Alexander’s hearing.

I honestly think she just didn’t want me to put my hands on her anymore so she did what she feel like she have to do to make sure she wouldn’t get hurt, you know. You know, she did what she had to do.”

The gun was never actually pointed at me. When she raised the gun down and raised it up, you know, the gun was never pointed at me. The fact is, you know . . . she never been violent toward me. I was always the one starting it. If she was violent toward me, it was because she was trying to get me up off her or stop me from doing.”

(Source: http://samuel-warde.com/2013/06/stand-your-ground-black-woman-fires-sho-gets-20-years-white-man-kills-and-goes-free/ )

The truth is that the mere act of Alexander leaving her home to get away from her abusive husband and returning back with a gun prevented her from invoking her Stand Your Ground claim and was left at the mercy of the 10-20-life’s ruling. The judge was duty-bound to award her the 20 years sentence. From a moral standpoint, the husband should have been put behind bars, not the wife.

Case 3: Zimmerman’s team presented his story in court in such a way that they convinced the jurors that he was being beaten quite brutally during the violent encounter with Martin. This was evident from Zimmerman’s broken nose and head lacerations when the police arrived at the scene. It was unclear as to who was attacking whom from top based on account witnesses. The medical experts examined the injuries of both parties and assumed that Martin had to be the one who attacked Zimmerman from top.

Thoughts to ponder:

  • If Martin knew that Zimmerman was carrying a gun, concealed at that time before Zimmerman shot him, he may have thought twice about attacking Zimmerman in the first place.  
  • If Zimmerman had followed the orders of the police dispatcher and never followed behind Martin with his gun, this case would have never gotten the media attention it did, let alone, surface as a case.

Questions have been raised about

  • why Zimmerman was legally allowed to carry a firearm as a community watchman and,
  • why he prejudged Martin as being suspicious.

In late 2009, a dangerous pit bull was on the loose in Twin Lakes community and was a menace to many people including Zimmerman’s family. Zimmerman bought pepper spray but an officer at Seminole County Animal Services advised him to get a gun.

The Zimmermans completed firearms training at a local lodge and received concealed-weapons gun permits. By June 2011, Zimmerman’s attention had shifted from a loose pit bull to a wave of robberies that rattled the community, called the Retreat at Twin Lakes. The homeowners association asked him to launch a neighborhood watch, and Zimmerman would begin to carry the Kel-Tec on his regular, dog-walking patrol – a violation of neighborhood watch guidelines but not a crime.

Though civil rights demonstrators have argued Zimmerman should not have prejudged Martin, one black neighbor of the Zimmermans said recent history should be taken into account.

“Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. I’m black, OK?” the woman said, declining to be identified because she anticipated backlash due to her race. She leaned in to look a reporter directly in the eyes. “There were black boys robbing houses in this neighborhood,” she said. “That’s why George was suspicious of Trayvon Martin.”

(Source: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/04/25/us-usa-florida-shooting-zimmerman-idUSBRE83O18H20120425)

In Zimmerman’s case, the ruling to acquit him of all charges is Constitutionally sound because of the “right to bear arms” amendment and the invoking of the “Justifiable Use of force” law which was duly upheld based on the assumptions and nature of Zimmerman’s act of self-defense against Martin.

The biggest moral question to ask is – Has been there a misapplication of the scenarios revolving around which the Stand Your Ground law is acceptable and how the 10-20-life law punishes the guilty and the not so guilty?

Personally, yes. 

A vital question we are asking ourselves today are – How can two people who didn’t kill anyone and had no criminal history get sentenced to 20 years in prison, yet a man who killed another individual with past criminal record go scot-free?

In a study of “stand your ground” laws commissioned by the National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers found that in states with “stand your ground” laws, the number of homicides had significantly increased from the years before the law was enacted. They found that the provision that allows self-defense “in any place a person has a legal right to be” is the driver of the increase in homicides. The increase in homicides, they argue, negates the claim that these laws reduce crime.

(Source: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/07/15/stateline-zimmerman-stand-your-ground/2517507/)

To shed light on the moral concerns behind the Stand Your Ground law, let me share one more appalling case of this law from Florida.

Ralph Wald, a white 70-year-old Vietnam War veteran, killed a man, half his age, when he caught the younger man having sex with his wife in their home. Wald was accused of second-degree murder and acquitted of all charges.

His defense?

Wald’s attorney claimed that his client did not recognize the man, who happened to be his wife’s ex-boyfriend. He shot him three times because he believed the man was raping his wife. He invoked “Stand Your Ground Law” to defend his actions to kill and “had no duty to retreat” when faced with danger in his home. The interesting point to note is that when Wald first noticed the couple, he decided to go back to his room to retrieve his handgun and returned to shoot the man who died on the spot. Wald’s wife was completely drunk during the actual event of being intimate with her ex-boyfriend and had no recollection of the event whatsoever. It was shameful for me to read that Wald’s wife was elated when Wald was acquitted and she showed no guilt or remorse about her ex-boyfriend’s murder.

Suggestions to improve the 10-20-life law

After hearing all these cases, it is clear that the punishment from the 10-20-life law needs to become less rigid, and more capable of providing sound justice, not just some one-size-fits all mandatory imprisonment. The judges need to be allowed to exercise their own discretion. Of course, that comes with its own set of grievances as judges may treat an individual worse off based on their own subjective biases. We can only hope that qualified judges don’t act in such a manner.

If we were to be human for one second and put ourselves in the shoes of Mr. Wollard or Mrs. Alexander, we would know that they did not deserve such a harsh punishment. In general, the justice system avoids making exceptions that can set a precedent and gravely affect new cases (Remember Miranda’s rights hearing for Boston bombers?). Laws are tricky because they can work wonders for one case and be completely controversial for another. Critics of the outcome of Zimmerman’s case feel that he should face some sort of punishment because his assumptions of suspecting Martin of wrongdoing led to the killing of an innocent teenager.

The judge who sentenced Wollard to 20 years was quoted as saying that if it wasn’t for the minimum mandatory aspect of this law, he would use his own discretion and impose some separate sentence, having taken into consideration the circumstances of this event. 

Critics say Marissa Alexander’s case underscores the unfair sentences that can result when laws strip judges of discretion. About two-thirds of the states have mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, mostly for drug crimes, according to a website for the Families Against Mandatory Minimums advocacy group. “We’re not saying she’s (Alexander) not guilty of a crime, we’re not saying that she doesn’t deserve some sort of sanction by the court,” said Greg Newburn, Florida director for the group. Rather, he said, the judge should have the authority to decide an appropriate sanction after hearing all the unique circumstances of the case. “The irony of the 10-20-life law is the people who actually think they’re innocent of the crime, they roll the dice and take their chances, and they get the really harsh prison sentences,” Newburn said. “Whereas the people who think they are actually guilty of the crime take the plea deal and get out (of prison) well before. So it certainly isn’t working the way it is intended.”

(Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/19/marissa-alexander-gets-20_n_1530035.html)

Lessons learned about Gun Control

Gun control has been a central focus of debate for many years in America. Meanwhile, horrific shootings in Virginia Tech, Colorado theater and the recent tragedy in the school in Connecticut keep reminding us of the same.

But how much good can gun control really do? It baffles me when a city like Chicago has some of the strictest laws against purchasing weapons yet the city has one of the worst statistics of gun related violence in the nation. Some nations even have strict bans on firearms yet the criminals carry more sophisticated weapons than the country’s own army. 

Let’s take a look at the status of two developed nations who currently have tight bans on the possession of firearms. 

Australia: In 1996, a “pathetic social misfit,” as a judge described the lone gunman, killed 35 people with a spray of bullets from semiautomatic weapons. Within weeks, the Australian government was working on gun reform laws that banned assault weapons and shotguns, tightened licensing and financed gun amnesty and buyback programs. The American Law and Economics Review reported in 2010 that firearm homicides in Australia dropped 59 percent between 1995 and 2006. In the 18 years before the 1996 laws, there were 13 gun massacres resulting in 102 deaths, according to Harvard researchers, with none in that category since.

UK: After 16 children and their teacher were killed by a gunman in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996, the British government banned all private ownership of automatic weapons and virtually all handguns. Those changes gave Britain some of the toughest gun control laws in the developed world on top of already strict rules. Hours of exhaustive paperwork are required if anyone wants to own even a shotgun or rifle for hunting. The result has been a decline in murders involving firearms.

(Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/opinion/the-gun-challenge-strict-laws-work.html?_r=0 )

I did some more research and found surprising counterarguments. Caveat: It is difficult to gauge what kind of activity has been reported under “violent crimes” and whether it actually reflects gun related cases.

Both the UK and Australia instituted strict gun control legislation which basically eliminated private gun ownership in 1997. However, neither countries’ legislation had an impact on lowering violent crime, and in both cases violent crime actually went up in the years following the enactment of the gun legislation.

Despite the UK having its gun ban, the violent crime rate is still far above that of the United States, and the country has also earned the title of violent crime capital of Europe (in 2010). 

A Harvard study shows that the burden of proof that “more guns equal more deaths and fewer guns equal less death” has not been observed by evidence across a wide array of nations. This can also be seen in the United States over the past two decades, as more guns have gone into circulation while both the violent crime rate and homicide rate (including those committed with firearms) have declined dramatically.

(Source:http://www.policymic.com/articles/24124/7-gun-control-facts-that-are-actually-myths)

Gun Control Politics in US

America has about 300 million firearms in circulation (about one gun per capita) making it the most for any nation and it would be unconstitutional to ban weapons outright.

Let’s face it – Individuals with a history of criminal activity don’t go to a store to purchase guns legally and any individual who is determined to kill others will find devious ways to stretch himself beyond the law. One example of the latter – the Boston bombers created an explosive device out of a pressure cooker and cause irreparable damage to hundreds of lives.

The Republicans argue – US citizens desire and deserve to be armed and stay safe from such criminals.

The Democrats are in favor of stricter background checks on new and existing gun holders.

Conclusion with some inspiring words from Malala’s UN Speech

There are endless debates about mental stability of individuals who are in close vicinity or have access to firearms. Humans emotions such as fear, jealousy, greed, rage and insatiable desire to avenge can propel even the most sane individuals without any criminal history to fire a weapon and murder someone in the heat of the moment.

Perhaps our greatest focus should be on how to help individuals cope with their violent streak, their past abuse and related trauma rather than dumping them into a prison. Perhaps, we should spend less time debating from the left or right wing and focus on regulating the trafficking of illegal weapons and stopping such sales in their tracks so they don’t reach the drug lords, the mafia, the terrorist groups and the criminals who work for them to make a living.

Then again, we should be looking at equitable distribution of resources so individuals don’t have to choose the path of violence and crimes to escape their own impoverished backgrounds.

Most importantly, we all need to look inward and think about our own moral compass towards violence.

An excerpt from Malala’s UN speech gives us hope and inspiration about what we should really expect of ourselves:

“I want education for the sons and daughters of all the Taliban and all the terrorists and extremists. I do not even hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there is a gun in my hands and he stands in front of me, I would not shoot him. That is the legacy of nonviolence I have been taught from Martin Luther King Jr, Jesus Christ, Nelson Mandela, Gandhiji, Badshah Khan and Mother Teresa. This is the forgiveness that I have learned from my father and from my mother. This is what my soul is telling me. Be peaceful and love everyone.”

p.s. One thing we all have to be careful about when we make any points of disagreement about individuals involved in a case, or its outcome or even any discourse in life, is to back it up with supporting evidence.

Here’s Graham’s hierarchy of Disagreement below that can helpful to anyone in their future debating, researching, and writing endeavors.

Graham's_Hierarchy_of_Disagreement.svg

Example for reference:

“Sakshi, I don’t think people give a doodoo about what you say. You don’t even have a real job!”

That’s Ad hominen my fellow homo sapien! 

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