The Florida verdict in the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case has rightly generated agonizing discussions about race in America, a cancerous issue that we need to face honestly.
But another issue is also telling us something serious about our society: the “Stand Your Ground” law. This is the Florida law, which likely played a major role in the verdict, that a person threatened with serious harm does not have to try to avoid the harm but can respond with deadly force.
That law, enacted in Florida and a number of other states, including South Carolina, is a revolutionary reversal of hundreds of years, if not thousands, of a principle fundamental to a civilized society.
Our law has always had a self-defense rule, but it has always been combined with a duty to retreat. That is, if you are attacked or in fear from another person, you should retreat if you can reasonably avoid injury that way.
A half dozen years ago, though, the South Carolina General Assembly, joining a wave of other states, decided that the “self-defense/duty to retreat” rule, which preserved public safety for centuries, doesn’t suit us well enough.
In 2006, we enacted a law specifically saying a person who is attacked in any place “where he has a right to be” has “no duty to retreat and is entitled to stand his ground.” (You can’t make this stuff up; those three John Wayne words — or is it John Dillinger — are right in our statute.)
The problem is that “stand your ground” can turn every chance encounter into a gunfight at the OK Corral, especially with our fervent belief in our right to carry guns everywhere. (Shopping malls? School yards and college campuses? How about the State Senate visitors’ gallery?)
Take Florida. We don’t really know what happened so we don’t know if George Zimmerman was entitled to “stand his ground.” But we do know he was following Trayvon Martin with a gun, so Trayvon Martin had a right to “stand his ground” under Florida law.
So, if Martin was beating George Zimmerman’s head against the ground (we don’t know if he was or not), that would just have been Martin “standing his ground.”
(Question: If Martin had killed Zimmerman in the process, do we think Martin would have been acquitted?)
If you think this is far-fetched, remember that in Florida “stand your ground” has reportedly accounted for 65 deaths — not even counting Trayvon Martin — since the law was passed.
And in this state, our own Supreme Court just last year freed two killers (whose victims were not criminals or burglars).
In one case, a security guard for an apartment house ejected a drunken, unruly man, and then chose to follow the departing drunk down the street.
When the drunken man turned, cursed the guard for following him, and reached under his shirt, the guard pulled his concealed weapon out and fired three shots, killing the man he had decided to follow. (There was no weapon under the victim’s shirt.)
In another case, a visitor in a home insulted a picture of the host’s daughter, and was ordered to leave. He did so, but tried to come back, opened the screened porch door, and as he continued onto the porch, the host shot and killed him.
In the first case, a jury convicted the security guard of manslaughter, but our Supreme Court dismissed the entire case, saying the security guard was protected by the “stand your ground” law.
The second shooter’s indictment didn’t even get to trial.
The Supreme Court threw the case out, as it had thrown the first case out, saying that under South Carolina’s 2006 law, a shooter in these circumstances is actually immune from the indignity of even having to go to trial.
In our Scriptures, the Book of Exodus gave us the “eye for an eye” rule.
This idea that punishment should be proportional to the injury was a reform of the previous practice of avenging any degree of injury by simply killing the offender.
The previous rule was called barbaric.
It looks like “barbaric” is back in season now.
Armand Derfner, a civil rights attorney, is a faculty member at the Charleston School of Law.