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Does 'Stand Your Ground' Mean More Homicides Will Go Unpunished?

Since the George Zimmerman verdict, Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law has received a lot of news coverage and, unfortunately, some of it has been inaccurate. The verdict has prompted efforts to repeal "Stand Your Ground" in the somewhat mistaken belief that it was responsible for the acquittal. But does "Stand Your Ground" really mean more Florida homicide cases are ending with acquittals?

Let's take a moment to clear up just what "Stand Your Ground" means, its connection to the Zimmerman case, and what makes it so controversial.

In 2005, Florida enacted the "Stand Your Ground" provision to change the existing law on the justifiable use of force in response to deadly threats occurring somewhere other than the defendant's home. (The law on self-defense in the home is somewhat different.) It also allows people to claim self-defense when a deadly threat is encountered during an attempt to stop a "forcible felony."

Historically, a valid self-defense claim has required two things. First, the defendant must show a reasonable belief that the danger of serious bodily injury or death was imminent. Second, there must have been no reasonable opportunity to avoid the confrontation by retreating. The primary consequence of the "Stand Your Ground" law was to eliminate the duty to retreat."

Despite numerous media claims to the contrary, "Stand Your Ground" was not invoked in the Zimmerman case, because the question of whether he could have retreated was not at issue. His claim was traditional self-defense.

For the jury, the relevant question was whether Zimmerman's belief that he was in imminent danger was reasonable. After listening to all the evidence, that jury determined that it was.

Whatever you may believe about this particular situation, the profound tragedy of a minor's murder should prompt us to take a close look at the impact of the "Stand Your Ground" defense, even if it did not directly cause Trayvon Martin's death.

To help, the Tampa Bay Times has rounded up the details of more than 200 "Stand Your Ground" homicide cases into a searchable database. Researchers will use that data to determine whether the law is fairly applied, whether racial bias comes into play, and how eliminating the duty to retreat from Florida's self-defense law has been problematic. We owe it to ourselves and to our children to find out.