ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) – "Stand your ground" statutes benefit whites more than blacks, are unnecessary and cause minority men to live in fear, several experts said Friday to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission as it evaluates racial disparities in the laws.
But one dissenter, an African-American lawmaker from South Carolina, said the law benefits black defendants by putting in place an extra hurdle in the way of arrest by police officers who may have hidden racial biases.
"Stand your ground, the way I intended when I voted for it, it's meant so people don't have to live in fear," said Democratic state Rep. Todd Rutherford.
Rutherford's voice was in the minority among more than a dozen experts who testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in Orlando during their only "field" hearing outside of their base in Washington. "Stand-your-ground" laws provide that individuals have no duty to retreat from a place where they have a right to be and may use any level of force, including lethal, if they reasonably believe they face an imminent and immediate threat of serious bodily harm or death.
One commissioner was skeptical of the benefits of "stand your ground laws," saying they pervert traditional self-defense laws.
"The problem with all this is that people are dying," said Commissioner Michael Yaki, a former member of the San Fransisco Board of Supervisors who runs a consulting firm.
The laws in around half of the 50 states came under renewed scrutiny in 2012 following the fatal shooting of an unarmed Trayvon Martin, a black teen, in a Sanford, Florida, town house complex by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who identifies himself as Hispanic. While Zimmerman didn't invoke a part of the law that allows for a an immunity hearing, during which a judge decides whether the case moves forward or is dropped, "stand your ground" defense language was included in the jury instructions at his trial last year. Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges in Sanford, about 30 miles from where Friday's hearing was held.
The commission decided to examine "stand your ground" laws after Martin's fatal shooting, said Martin Castro, the commission's chair. Next year, the commission will issue a report with recommendations for President Obama and Congress.
"It will be beyond anecdote, but concrete statistical information," Castro said.
In a white-dominated society, where the majority tends to project its fears on young men of color, "stand your ground" laws have made young black and brown men fearful, said Ahmad Nabil Abuznaid, a co-founder of the activist group Dream Defenders.
"People are perceived as threats when they just really want to live their lives," Abuznaid said.
Attorney Benjamin Crump, who represented Martin's family and the family of Michael Brown, the unarmed black 18-year-old who was shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, said there is no need for "stand your ground" laws. He said they are unconstitutionally vague since not one person is going to agree on what constitutes "reasonable fear."
"Stand your ground was a solution looking for a problem," Crump said.