America’s top law enforcement official has condemned the “Stand Your Ground” laws spotlighted by the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and the subsequent trial of his killer, George Zimmerman.
Speaking to the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) on Tuesday, US Attorney General Eric Holder said the measures “sow dangerous conflict in our neighbourhoods” by “allowing – and perhaps encouraging – violent situations to escalate in public.”
Since the Stand Your Ground law first passed in Florida in 2005, well over 20 US states have adopted similar legislation, allowing people to defend themselves with deadly force should they feel threatened at home or in public. Those pleading self-defence need not retreat from anyone they perceive as a threat before opening fire.
Mr Holder was speaking at the NAACP’s annual convention in Orlando, Florida, mere miles from Sanford, where Trayvon was killed in February 2012. Mr Zimmerman, who on Saturday was acquitted of murder, did not employ Stand Your Ground as part of his defence at trial, but police cited it as a reason why he was not arrested until some six weeks after the shooting. The jury were also told that if they believed Zimmerman had a right to be where he was during his altercation with Trayvon, then “he had no duty to retreat and the right to stand his ground.”
Zimmerman was far from the first to benefit from the law’s protections, which have even been used to thwart prosecutors in several violent gangland incidents. In 2006, a year after the law was passed in Florida, a Miami man escaped conviction despite having sprayed 14 bullets at a car full of gang members. That same year, 19-year-old Christopher Cote was shot twice by his neighbour, Jose Tapanes, after an argument about whether Cote was walking his dog on the other man’s property in West Palm Beach Florida. Cote died in his mother’s arms. Tapanes was initially convicted of manslaughter, but acquitted at a retrial, courtesy of Stand Your Ground.
In April 2012, not long after Trayvon’s death, 29-year-old Daniel Adkins was shot and killed outside a Taco Bell in Arizona, which has its own Stand Your Ground law. Police did not arrest his killer, Cordell Jude, 22, because he claimed to have mistaken Adkins’ dog leash for a deadly weapon. “These laws try to fix something that was never broken,” Holder told NAACP delegates. “The list of resulting tragedies is long and, unfortunately, has victimized too many who are innocent.”
The NAACP has launched a petition calling for civil rights charges to be brought against Mr Zimmerman. Mr Holder said the Justice Department is conducting an investigation to determine whether such charges are feasible.
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