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Liberty and justice for all, but not in equal measure

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As Americans we might like to believe that the US legal system is intended to protect all of our citizens.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t protect us all equally, and in fact disproportionately fails to protect the most vulnerable. We’re surrounded by instances of injustice related to gender, race and other axes of social privilege, and the machinations of law are not exempt. The state of Florida has recently provided an especially stark example in the application of its self-defense laws in two cases: Marissa Alexander and George Zimmerman. This example is notable because although there were many similarities between the cases, the outcomes were very different.

Alexander’s case was tried in May 2012 , Zimmerman’s in July 2013, both prosecuted by Florida state’s attorney Angela Corey. Both cases involved the use of firearms which were legally purchased and carried, and their owners were trained in their use. Both prosecutions cast the defendant as the aggressor, who could have avoided the confrontation. Both of the encounters were with unarmed persons. Both defenses were based on Florida self-defense laws, which include “stand your ground” laws justifying the use of deadly force without the obligation to retreat. Both shooters admitted to firing a single shot with the intent of defending themselves.

Beyond those similarities, each case had its own unique circumstances.

The events of Alexander’s case took place in her home. Her altercation was with her husband, Rico Gray Sr., who was under a restraining order following a conviction for domestic battery which put Alexander in the hospital.  After Gray threatened to kill her, Alexander retrieved a handgun from her car, returned to confront him, firing once. She was arrested and charged the same day. She had had no prior criminal record. A jury deliberated for just 12 minutes before convicting her. A judge sentenced her to 20 years in prison, in accord with mandatory minimums specified by law.  Gray, previously sentenced to probation for his earlier conviction, remains free.

Zimmerman,_George_-_Seminole_County_MugZimmerman’s shot was fired in his neighborhood, in an altercation with a teenager, Trayvon Martin, who was a guest in the community and walking by himself. The two were not acquainted. Zimmerman called police from his car, claiming that Martin appeared suspicious, and began to follow him. Some of the facts of their encounter remain in dispute, but that Zimmerman fired his gun is not in question. Afterward, Zimmerman was detained by police, questioned and released the same night without being arrested or charged. Following a public outcry, a new investigation was launched and two months later he was arrested and charged. He had been previously arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer, but the charges were later dropped. After 16 hours of deliberation, the jury found Zimmerman not guilty, and he is free today.

The most striking difference between the two cases is where each defendant aimed their gun: George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in the chest and killed him, while Marissa Alexander fired at a wall and injured no one. Alexander, a black woman, is in prison for scaring her abusive husband away, while Zimmerman, who killed a young black man, walks free. Alexander and Martin’s families have lost a mother and a son. The outcomes for the people involved in these cases could not be more different. Regardless of the merits of the relevant laws themselves, their radically unequal application is deeply troubling. What does this tell us about the relative value of these human lives, as weighed by the judicial system?

“The Florida criminal justice system has sent two clear messages today. One is that if women who are victims of domestic violence try to protect themselves, the `Stand Your Ground Law’ will not apply to them. […] The second message is that if you are black, the system will treat you differently.” – U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown

References

Written by Matt Zimmerman

July 14, 2013 at 13:56

Posted in Uncategorized

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18 Responses

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  1. Actually the most striking difference here is that Zimmerman by the confused accounts and testimony that I’ve read was on his back being beaten which allows a SYG defence. While I don’t know all the details and I think the Alexander case is probably not “justice”, she left the property, fetched her gun, *returned* to the propety and threatened with and discharged the weapon. SYG does not seem to apply here, as by leaving she was not in imminent danger and could simply have left. Do I think 12 minutes to decide to convict someone to 20 years was approriate? No. Do I think the cases are comparable? Also no.

    Kiwi

    July 14, 2013 at 15:46

    • No two situations can be directly comparable, but there are similarities. Zimmerman was in his car, in no danger, and left it—armed—to pursue Martin.

      In Alexander’s case, it seems she did not leave the property but entered the garage and could not exit that way. From http://justiceformarissa.blogspot.com/2012/04/lincoln-b.html:

      After a minute or two of trying to escape, I was able to make it to the garage where my truck was parked, but in my haste to leave I realized my keys were missing. I tried to open the garage but there was a mechanical failure. I was unable to leave, trapped in the dark with no way out. For protection against further assault I retrieved my weapon; which is registered and I have a concealed weapon permit. Trapped, no phone, I entered back into my home to either leave through another exit or obtain my cell phone.

      Matt Zimmerman

      July 14, 2013 at 16:54

      • OK, so reading a bit further would suggest that SYG may have been applicable, though the failure of the garage door that presumably worked on arrival seems a bit convenient. I wonder if it was checked.

        Not being a lawyer I’m not sure how SYG would combine with the reckless endangerment of the children. I don’t think anyone familiar with guns would expect thin internal walls to stop bullets, so that aspect still bothers me. I don’t know the SYG law beyond what I’ve read, but my gut says it should not absolve her of the child endangerment.

        Please don’t think I’m someone who thinks she should rot in jail for 20 years, but she and her trial never got the exposure Zimmerman did (at least to me) so it’s not so easy to form a balanced opinion. Yes the sentence is too long, but that is a problem with mandatory minimums, with no judicial discretion. She was offered a plea (3 years) which she refused, and proceeded to trial. I don’t know if that was bad advice or too much faith in the jury trial. To roll out the old cliche: Jury duty is mostly performed by those too dumb to get out of jury duty. Certainly 12 minutes deliberation indicates one of two things, either an appalling defence or misconduct by the jurors. Such a period of someones life should not be decided in such a small amount of time.

        Kiwi

        July 14, 2013 at 18:20

        • Rep. Brown quoted above had this to say about Alexander’s trial:

          The imbalance in this case was abundantly clear in the courtroom. On the State’s Attorney side of the room, I saw nine prosecutors and twenty officers. On Marissa’s side, I saw a lone defense attorney doing his best in what clearly an unfair fight. My first step in this case will be to bring in the nation’s best experts in domestic violence law.

          Matt Zimmerman

          July 14, 2013 at 18:37

        • True that there is much less information about the Alexander case. It didn’t even have a wikipedia page at the time of this writing. It was a lot more work to track down sources, and I needed more of them. It makes me wonder how many more cases happen which we might never hear about unless we went looking for them specifically.

          Matt Zimmerman

          July 14, 2013 at 18:42

  2. […] Liberty and justice for all, but not in equal measure (mdzlog.alcor.net) […]

    ottawaedge

    July 14, 2013 at 23:31

    • So lets clear some things up… Zimmerman’s case had nothing to do with stand your ground. Zimmerman’s case was self defense.

      Alexander *left* and came back. Sure, she couldn’t leave the garage because the door failed, but SHE went back in the house. If she had stayed in the garage and he came out to the garage, this would have been a very different case.

      The other issue here is mandatory minimums. They are horrible. Unfortunately, because Alexander *left* the house and then came back in with a gun, there was enough evidence for a jury to find her guilty. Because there was enough evidence to find her guilty, and we have mandatory minimums, the judge had no choice.

      Chris Johnston

      July 15, 2013 at 12:52

      • Although Zimmerman’s defense team chose not to base their defense on SYG, it was definitely a factor in the case, not least in police’s decision not to arrest him in the first place.

        Alexander went to the garage and came back. Zimmerman got out of his car and followed Martin. Both had ample opportunity to avoid a confrontation, but made the choice to do otherwise. In Alexander’s case, she was dealing with someone known to her to be a physical threat. In Zimmerman’s, he was approaching a stranger, armed, based on their appearance. If anything, I find Alexander’s actions more defensible.

        Matt Zimmerman

        July 15, 2013 at 13:03

  3. Apologies if this is out of order, but did you just censor the very long post that someone took the time to submit? I don’t recall it being objectionable, but it has disappeared, which seems a shame. Or perhaps the author removed it?

    Kiwi

    July 15, 2013 at 12:46

    • Because it was so long (longer than my original post) I asked them to post it on their own blog and link it here, since it breaks up the flow of discussion. I consider that to be better etiquette than editing the comment to shorten it, which was the other option.

      Matt Zimmerman

      July 15, 2013 at 12:59

  4. […] Liberty and justice for all, but not in equal measure (mdzlog.alcor.net) […]

  5. With regards “the relative value of these human lives”, the media has been the biggest purveyor of injustice.

    Black on white crime is rarely given this attention.

    George Zimmerman’s mugshot was frequently posted along with Treyvon Martin’s 12-year-old picture. One would think that George had killed a “little boy”.

    He was 17 years old, a large “child”, and quite capable of forethought to commit bodily harm.

    As for Alexander’s case, she should have been acquitted, based on what little info I have on it.

    Flatimus Maximus

    July 15, 2013 at 15:09

  6. I’m not in any way defending this phenomenon or even justifying it, but unfortunately this problem isn’t unique to the US. In fact, I’m pretty sure that you’ll encounter these kind of injustices in more countries in the world than where you wouldn’t. I find some hope in that the general public isn’t completely apathetic to these cases. It happens too often that the rich and privileged get away with everything they want, no matter how horrible, just because of their position.

    Jonathan Carter

    July 16, 2013 at 01:25

    • Surely, I didn’t mean to imply this is US-specific, just commenting on US affairs because that’s what I’m familiar with (and not making assumptions about elsewhere)

      Matt Zimmerman

      July 16, 2013 at 11:22

  7. […] Liberty and justice for all, but not in equal measure (mdzlog.alcor.net) […]

  8. I actually wrote a book about the castle laws and SYG because my grandson was shot to death, unarmed, less than a week before his court date as a prosecution witness. This happened in Oklahoma in 2007. He had witnessed interstate drug trafficking and a related murder. Given that setting, the same DA that would have used his testimony called it self defense and turned his killer loose. There was never even a trial, which contrasts greatly with the Zimmerman/Martin case. Unbelievable!

    I’m not against the idea of self-defense, but my grandson’s homicide was almost certainly a murder to stop his testimony. People have even told me that they think the court officials were probably involved in corruption. So I have been following the castle law/self-defense issue, and I continue to find highly questionable killings that were called “self-defence.” I invite you to my blog.

    Realistically, Zimmerman probably deserved a conviction of manslaughter. He definitely crossed the line when police suggested that he not continue to follow Martin. In hindsight I guess I’m not surprised that the jury voted to exonerate, because defense lawyers attempt to have the most impressionable and shallow kind of people available in the jury (and may the selection process forbid a juror with an analytical mind!). Also, what is the point of even having a jury if the court officials tell the jurors how to vote?

    If you like unrestricted self-defense laws and a return to the wild west mentality, fine; just don’t bitch about it if someone shoots you and calls it self-defense!

    John Wright

    July 26, 2013 at 22:02

  9. There are even worse examples – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/16/stand-your-ground-cases_n_3606405.html

    The one I like most of all is of a confrontation between two rival gangs. A car full of gangsters armed to the teeth drive in the rival territory searching for a specific target from the rival gang. They find him. They intimidate him until he reaches for his own gun (as he was actually entitled under SYG), then they proceed to shoot to kill him. And they get acquited because of stand your ground.

    It is perfectly possible to have a scenario where both sides can reasonably feel that their life is at risk while at the same time not breaking any laws. And from that moment on – the law is off, it is Wild West – whomever survives is right.

    You can even do it with a politician – you walk up to a governor with an assault rifle in your hands (perfectly legal in some states), then feel threatened by his bodyguards reaching for their guns and proceed to shoot to kill all of them. All perfectly legal based on existing precedents on stand your ground. If you can afford a good enough lawyer.

    Crazy country.

  10. […] Liberty and justice for all, but not in equal measure […]


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