The Cautionary Instruction: ‘Stand your ground’ an invitation to kill?

Friday, 23 March 2012 06:00 AM Written by  Matt Mangino

20120324wap_trayvonmartin_150Race has emerged as the primary focus in the Trayvon Martin homicide. Martin’s death is also a tragic example of law making gone awry. Martin, 17, was shot and killed last month in Sanford, Florida by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain, who thought Martin “looked suspicious.”

Zimmerman contends that he was authorized to use lethal force pursuant to Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ law. No charges have been filed and the U.S. Department of Justice is now investigating the case.

To add some perspective, a look at two very different legislative enactments authorizing lethality would be instructive ...

First, the death penalty. Florida authorizes the use of lethal intravenous drugs to cause the death of a person as punishment for the crime of first degree murder. The punishment is imposed, after conviction and sentencing by a vetted and impartial jury and countless reviews by various state and federal appellate courts.

 

Second, the ‘stand your ground’ law. An individual can use lethal force in the form of a gun, knife or other weapon to cause the death of a person in Florida based on that single individual’s feeling of fear, developed in a matter of seconds, often without any other witnesses.

Last year, Marshall Frank, a retired Miami-Dade Police homicide detective, called for the repeal of Florida’s death penalty in a column published in the Daytona Beach News-Journal. He wrote, “It's time for legislators to delve into this hideous problem whereby a snail’s-pace appeals system stands in the way of carrying out true justice … there should be a maximum time factor requiring appeals to be filed and heard within two years, or else a sentence is automatically commuted to life.”

That is precisely the hypocrisy of these parallel laws that authorize lethality. The U.S. Supreme Court has mandated a system of super due process for the death penalty.  For all its naysayers the death penalty is the most accurately applied punishment in the world. The years that pass between crime, conviction and execution are indicative of a deliberative and thoughtful process that insures accuracy. Florida has 397 men and women on death row. Some have been there for more than 40 years. The state has executed only eight inmates since 2007.

While the death penalty is under attack -- New Mexico, New York, New Jersey -- have recently abolished the punishment, the castle doctrine and ‘stand your ground’ legislation is being enacted, or expanded, in state after state. Pennsylvania expanded the castle doctrine last year.

Yet, the ‘stand your ground’ law is anything but deliberative and thoughtful. We lament the killer who is executed after trial and years of review, yet we empower a single individual to make a split second decision -- suspicion, a threat, fear -- ‘bang!’ There is no investigation, no trial, and no appeal. In that split second, the individual is judge, jury and executioner.

A review by the St. Petersburg Times in October, 2010, five years after the enactment of ‘stand your ground,’ found that the self-defense law had been invoked in 93 cases resulting in 65 deaths.

This week Tony Norman of the Post-Gazette wrote, “Mr. Zimmerman is not a cop. He had no legal right to question a law-abiding citizen based on his suspicions.

Unfortunately, Florida and some 16 other states have given guys like Zimmerman more than the right to question law-abiding citizens. Lawmakers have empowered them to kill with impunity.

(Photo: Trayvon Martin in an undated family photo. Associated Press)


Matthew T. Mangino is the former district attorney of Lawrence County. He currently serves on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. He is a featured columnist for the Pennsylvania Law Weekly and a regular contributor to the Youngstown Vindicator. You can read his musings on crime and punishment at www.mattmangino.com.

Join the conversation:

To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to socialmedia@post-gazette.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.