As the trial of George Zimmerman gets underway, we wonder if women should be paying closer attention to self defense laws.
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As the high-profile trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin continues this week, legal experts, legislators and citizens have focused their attention in Florida and elsewhere on the controversial law, Stand Your Ground.
Meant to guard against the wrongful prosecution of a person’s use of deadly force in a justified situation, Stand Your Ground laws are seen by some as a women’s issue by advocates who say women are more likely to be victims of violent crimes.
In New Hampshire, state Rep. Lenette Peterson (R-Merrimack) likened recent attempts to repeal the state’s Stand Your Ground law to “declaring open season on women.”
Stand Your Gound laws have been loosely defined by the media as the right to use deadly force if you feel your life is threatened. These laws are often coupled with or added-on to other self-defense statutes, such as the castle doctrine, which governs the use of deadly force to defend oneself and others at home.
Often overlooked in general reports are the different nuances of self-defense laws that vary state-by-state, and the even more murky impact of state judges and juries as they determine how these types of laws should be applied in individual cases.
“Basically Stand Your Ground means you don’t have a duty to retreat in a place other than your home, in public,” says Houston-based criminal defense attorney Neal A. Davis. “But, as a practical matter, there’s the law and there’s reality.”
Davis would know. Last year he argued one of the first cases to test Texas’ Stand Your Ground law, passed in 2007. (Florida passed the first sStand Your Ground law in 2005). Davis and his co-counsel William M. (Bill) Stradley, a former district attorney, have appealed the trial court’s decision on the grounds that the jury wasn’t properly instructed on how to apply the law when a defendant also holds a concealed handgun license. The intricate relationship between Stand Your Ground laws and gun ownership only heightens the need for clearer understanding of self-defense laws, particularly among women—one of the fastest growing demographics among new gun owners.
The New York Times recently spotlighted a surge in women’s participation in shooting sports, with 5 million women participating in target shooting events, an increase of 51.5 percent from 2001 to 2011, citing the National Sporting Good Association. Gun dealers also reported a rise in female customers in 2012, solidifying the upward trend of the past two years, according to respondents to a survey by the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Those statistics are a good thing, according to Penny Dean, a Concord, New Hampshire-based lawyer who specializes in the Second Amendment and has testified before the state’s House and Senate committees on firearms and other civil rights issues.
“Self-defense is a women’s issue,” says Dean, adding that women are more likely to be targeted by criminals or be victims of personal attacks. Wage inequality between genders and the common occurrence for women to be the primary caregivers of children and elderly parents also disproportionately impacts women who may end up defending their actions in court, a costly endeavor, she adds.
Whether an arrest will even be made when deadly force is used as a means of self-defense, much less future charges brought by state prosecutors, varies by state and hinges on the personal bias and understanding of the law by police.
“People don’t bother to read the statues; they think you don’t have to retreat and can shoot and walk away,” Dean says.
For example, a Stand Your Ground measure like Florida’s, which is one of the strongest on the books, grants citizens an affirmative right to use deadly force and allows law enforcement officials greater leeway to determine whether to make an arrest. In contrast, New Hampshire’s law, which withstood a recent state Senate vote for repeal, permits a person to raise Stand Your Ground as an affirmative defense after prosectors have filed charges. By that time, the damage done to a person’s character and livelihood could be devastating, Dean says.
“Everything isn’t meant to go through court channels,” Dean notes. “That’s why we have these laws. That law is a factor in the police decision to arrest.”
Some critics, however, liken the adoption of Stand Your Ground laws to a return to the Wild West, an unsettling thought for many women.
To uncover how the law has been used since its adoption, the Tampa Bay Times sifted through media reports, court records and interviews with prosectors to compile a database of 222 Stand Your Ground cases across Florida. Of the 126 fatal cases identified, five women were convicted and eight women had charges dropped, their case dismissed or were otherwise found to be justified in the use of deadly force under the doctrine. In another controversial matter, the Florida law did not aid Marissa Alexander, who was sentenced in 2012 to 20 years in prison for firing a “warning shot” in front of her abusive ex-husband. Alexander’s case received prominent media coverage in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s shooting.
No matter what the jury in George Zimmerman’s trial finds, legal experts, legislators and lobbyist will look to the case as a precedent for future Stand Your Ground laws or repeals.
“I would say be very familiar with the laws,” says Texas-lawyer Davis. “Don’t just think that you can use magic words and believe that a jury will automatically think it’s self-defense. You really, truly need to be in fear of serious bodily injury or death. And expect that if you use deadly force, the police and prosecution will seriously question whether you provoked the dispute that resulted in you using deadly force.”
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