Are Self-Defense Laws "Whites Only"?
Trayvon Martin's killing at the hands of George Zimmerman, who walked free for six weeks before being arrested amid a public outcry, has both traumatized and galvanized Americans. The case reminds us that justice can be hard to come by in the U.S., and that race continues to play a disconcertingly large role in whether -- and how quickly -- wrongdoers are held responsible for their crimes.
In particular, the case has shined light on dubious "stand your ground" laws. Fed to state lawmakers -- first in Florida, and then in dozens of states around the country -- by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) on behalf of the NRA, stand-your-ground laws allow citizens to use deadly force if they feel threatened, even if they have the opportunity to retreat.
These pieces of legislation have been nicknamed "shoot first, ask questions later (or never)" laws, and since Florida's was passed seven years ago critics have warned that a spike in justified homicides could follow. Indeed, that is exactly what has happened.
[Chart via Mother Jones]
Stand-your-ground laws are currently on the books in 25 states around the country and have been considered in several others.
In the wake of Martin's death, Americans are becoming more aware of not only the problematic nature of stand your ground laws, but also how such laws are inconsistently enforced. Stories have started to surface of individuals, notably people of color, who have genuinely acted in self-defense, but not been protected under the law the same way George Zimmerman was. And even when stand-your-ground laws aren't at play, we've started to see more clearly than ever how some members of society are legally allowed to defend themselves from harm, while others are not.
1. Black transgender woman charged with murder for defending herself against hate speech.
One night last June, Chrishaun "CeCe" McDonald and a group of friends, all of them black and trans or queer, were on their way to a Minneapolis grocery store when they passed a dive bar called the Schooner Tavern. Several white bar patrons began hurling invectives at the group, reportedly calling them the n-word, "faggots," "chicks with dicks," and other homophobic, transphobic and racist slurs -- names McDonald had heard over and over again.
McDonald, a community college student who mentored black trans youth, reportedly told the harassers she wouldn't tolerate their slurs. The Advocate describes what happened next:
Soon one woman reportedly yelled, "I'll take you on, bitch" and hit McDonald in the side of the face with a glass beer mug, lacerating her salivary gland and slicing her cheek through to the interior of her mouth.
What happened next is murky still. What cops might call a bar fight ensued, with several more people joining in the melee. At the end, McDonald was lying in a pool of her own blood, Schmitz in a pool of his blood. The father of four had lost too much blood to survive.
The 47-year-old Schmitz had been stabbed with a pair of fabric scissors that McDonald had her in purse. Confused and frightened, McDonald first allegedly told police Schmitz had run into her scissors as she was fighting back from the all-out assault on her, an act of protection that came with the ultimate cost. Later she said it was a friend of hers who used the scissors to protect her.
It's unclear exactly how Schmitz died. What is clear is that Schmitz had a history of spewing hate speech -- according to several reports, Schmitz also had a swastika tattoo on his chest -- and he and his companions both verbally and physically attacked McDonald that night at the Schooner Tavern. The weapon was reportedly never found.
Also clear? McDonald's swift, robust punishment. McDonald was charged with second-degree murder -- at first without intent, and then, when she rejected a plea bargain, with intent. Despite her desire to be kept with the general prison population, McDonald was also held in solitary confinement for a month. She didn't receive follow-up treatment for her facial injury for two months.
Just last week, McDonald accepted a different plea deal and pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter. Though none of us can know what's going on in McDonald's head, it's easy to understand why one would want to accept such a deal: in exchange for a guilty plea, McDonald will serve 41 months in prison, versus 40 years if she were convicted of second-degree murder. According to a survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 38 percent of black male-to-female transsexual respondents said they had been sexually assaulted by another inmate or a staff member in jail or prison. At the same time, trans individuals are 10 to 15 times more likely than the average American to be incarcerated at some point in their lifetime.
Minnesota is not a stand-your-ground state, but it's easy to imagine that McDonald would not have been protected under such a law if it had existed in her state. Unlike George Zimmerman, who was allowed to walk free for weeks after acting in "self-defense" against an unarmed teenager, McDonald's case fits into a tragic pattern of LGBTQ individuals and people of color who are not given the benefit of the doubt when they defend themselves against attackers.
Read more from McDonald's supporters at the Support CeCe Web site.
2. Black woman sentenced to 20 years in jail for defending herself against abusive husband.
Marissa Alexander is an example of someone who stood her ground in a state where "stand your ground" is law, but was not protected by the legislation.
In August 2010, Alexander was married to Rico Gray, a known abuser. A year earlier, Alexander had obtained a protective order against Gray, who had been arrested twice for domestic battery. Gray had once beaten Alexander so badly she needed to go to the hospital. Reason.com reports that Gray said in a 2010 deposition, "I got five baby mammas, and I put my hands on every last one of them except for one.... The way I was with women…they had to walk on eggshells around me." Gray admitted punching, choking and shoving women.
One night that August, Gray became out of control after he found out that Alexander had texted pictures of the couple's newborn daughter to her first husband. Alexander locked herself in her bedroom to protect herself. Gray tried to force his way into the room, telling Alexander, "If I can't have you, nobody can." Previously, Gray admitted telling Alexander that "if she ever cheated on me I would kill her."
Alexander got her hands on a gun. As Gray moved toward her, she shot once, not at Gray, but at the ceiling in his general direction. Gray acknowledges that Alexander was not trying to shoot him (via Reason.com):
"The gun was never pointed at me," Gray said. "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." If his sons hadn't been in the house, Gray said, "I probably would have tried to take the gun from her," and "I probably would have put my hand on her."
Despite all the evidence indicating that Alexander shot out of self-defense and did not intend to hurt, let alone kill, Gray, she was convicted of aggravated assault with a weapon and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The jury took just 12 minutes to deliberate.
Stand your ground -- unless you're a victim of domestic violence, it seems.
Like McDonald's case, Alexander's fits a disturbing pattern; studies have shown that most women who are incarcerated are victims of physical or sexual abuse.
3. Black man gets life in prison for shooting white man who trespassed and threatened his family.
John McNeil's troubles started in early 2005 when he hired Brian Epp as a contractor to help him build a new house in Cobb County, Georgia. Epp fought often with McNeil and eventually McNeil had Epp sign an agreement that he would stay away from the home. Epp did not comply. In fact, Epp came to the house one day in December of that year and, according to McNeil's 15-year-old son La'Ron, pointed a utility knife at the teenager while he was home alone.
McNeil soon returned home. Rania Khalek wrote about what happened next for Salon:
According to McNeil's testimony, when he pulled up to his house, Epp was next door grabbing something from his truck and stuffing it in his pocket. McNeil quickly grabbed his gun from the glove compartment in plain view of Epp who was coming at him "fast." McNeil jumped out of the car and fired a warning shot at the ground insisting that Epp back off. Instead of retreating, Epp charged at McNeil while reaching for his pocket, so McNeil fired again, this time fatally striking Epp in the head. (Epp was found to have a folding knife in his pocket, although it was shut.)
Epp reportedly had a history of threatening and frightening homeowners, some of whom took legal action against him. Despite this evidence, and Georgia's stand-your-ground law, plus a Castle doctrine law that makes it legal to use deadly force to protect one's home, McNeil was convicted of murder in 2006 and sentenced to life in prison.
In response, activists have filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the state's stand-your-ground law is enforced differently for people of color than it is for white citizens.
As North Carolina NAACP State Conference president Rev. William Barber told Salon, "African Americans are caught in a curious position. On one hand, we fight against stand-your-ground laws, but once the laws are on the books they aren't applied to us."