Opinion - Understand your ground

New lawsuit challenges controversial law

Last week, the Rainbow Push Coalition filed a lawsuit challenging Georgia's Stand Your Ground law. The law, passed in 2006, established that a "person is justified in threatening or using force against another when and to the extent that he or she reasonably believes that such threat or force is necessary to defend himself or herself or a third person against such other's imminent use of unlawful force."

Such laws have been bugging the hell out of people since the Trayvon Martin case (which we don't need to waste space recounting; it was a mess that none of us could forget if we tried).

Georgia isn't the only place where Stand Your Ground continues to be actively disputed; Domestic violence advocates have taken issue with the case of Marissa Alexander, a Florida woman who was arrested in 2010 after firing a warning shot near her husband and father of her two children, admitted wife-beater Rico Gray.

Alexander was subsequently sentenced to 20 years in prison, a verdict that was overturned in September after an appellate court found that the burden of proof was wrongfully placed on her during her first trial. In other words, the jury was literally told by the judge to assume Alexander's guilt unless she could prove otherwise. Yes, Florida is basically making shit up as it goes these days.

With only an estimated one-quarter of all physical assaults perpetuated against females by intimate partners resulting in police reports, Alexander's supporters claim that her case sends a disempowering message to victims of domestic violence that the law doesn't uphold their right to defend themselves. The "what the fuck-ness" of the case escalated following the acquittal of George Zimmerman this past summer. If a man can walk free after killing an unarmed teenager, how is it that a documented victim ends up sentenced to 20 years in prison after firing a warning shot that resulted in no injuries?

As Alexander awaits a bond hearing next week ahead of her new trial scheduled for next March, the Georgia lawsuit further pushes on behalf of mounting public concern about the legitimacy of SYG laws.

Still, there are questions over whether eradicating the law would practically change anything. Supporters of SYG, like Georgia Carry Vice President John Monroe, assert that repealing the law would effectively accomplish nothing, since "common law" more or less provides the same legal precedent for self-defense.

"The 2006 law didn't change anything," he told the AJC last week. "It codified the existing common law. The reason it was passed was out of concern that, at some point, a judge would change the common law and impose some kind of duty to retreat, which never existed in Georgia."

But Atlanta lawyer Robert Patillo, who has been working with the Rainbow Push Coalition on the lawsuit, says there's a key difference between SYG and common law.

"In common law, a person has to already be a victim of a crime before their acts of self-defense become justified," he says. "With Stand Your Ground, you only need reasonable suspicion that a person poses a threat to your safety. It essentially allows for offensive attacks, whereas common law only protects defensive acts."

Backers of the lawsuit hope to win a temporary injunction, which would invalidate the law until a trial date can be set where the constitutionality of the law will be decided permanently.

The numbers support the argument that SYG laws lead to a higher number of violent deaths. According to the Bar Association of San Francisco, by 2010, five years after the law was first enacted, justifiable homicides had approximately doubled in the 22 states where it was on the books. In states without the law, the occurrence of similar crimes stayed the same or decreased.

Aside from what those in opposition to these laws feel is a dangerously expanded definition of self-defense, there has been debate over racial discrimination in the implementation of SYG. In Florida, data was reviewed and compiled concerning the racial makeup of those involved in fatal cases where SYG was invoked. In Georgia, those figures have proven challenging to come by.

"I've been working on this lawsuit for two years," says Patillo, "And I've been unable to find solid information like the database in Florida."

The lawsuit instead looks at two cases which Patillo and the Rainbow Push Coalition believe adequately illustrate racially discriminatory application of SYG in Georgia.

The first cites the acquittal of Adam Lee Edmondson, a white male, who shot and killed Chris Johnson, an unarmed African-American, following an altercation last March. The other is Herman Smith, a 21-year-old African-American who was convicted of murdering another black male in Bowdon, in a case that law enforcement officers testified in court that they too saw as self-defense.

But let's not ignore the big, red elephant in the room: Georgia's bleak-as-fuck record of racial inequality in its criminal justice system is well-established. According to the state, 62 percent of Georgia's prison population is black. And, according to a well-known 1980s study of Georgia's death penalty, prosecutors in homicide cases involving black defendants and white victims sought the death penalty 70 percent of the time, compared to 19 percent with black victims and white defendants.

Nauseating statistics aside, in the SYG lawsuit, a lack of data detailing the implementation of the law makes it difficult to substantiate the claim that it frequently perpetuates purposeful bias against people of color. There's enough ambiguity in the law to allow juries considerable flexibility in deciding whether or not someone was acting in accordance with their law-given right to defend themselves and their property with deadly force.

And since judges and juries (unfortunately?) are people, and people are the sum of their biases, it stands to reason that regardless of SYG's fate, Georgia is long overdue in dealing with the underlying factors that consistently result in different outcomes for comparable cases depending on the race of the people involved.

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