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Why the self-defense argument still carries so much weight

Caroline Lumière: Georgia is a Stand Your Ground state. In fact, it is one of the first states to follow Florida in enacting a Stand Your Ground law. Before these laws, most states had this notion of a duty to opt out outside the home. Basically, if you weren’t at home and faced what you thought was a deadly threat, you had to try and run away first if it was safe to do so. However, what the Stand Your Ground Laws do is remove the requirement to retreat anywhere legally, until you initiate the deadly encounter. I’m paraphrasing the law here, but it says that every law-abiding citizen has the right to stand firm without backing down and to use force against force if they have a reasonable perception of a threat.

In the United States, we’ve had this thing called the Castle Doctrine for a long time, which means if someone threatens you in your house or your “castle” you don’t have to retreat because your house is. meant to be a safe haven for you. . What the Stand Your Ground laws do, starting in 2005 with Florida’s first Stand Your Ground law, is that they essentially take the Castle Doctrine and extend it to any place a person may be. legally. So part of this trial is that the defense wants to assert that there was a reasonable perception of threat when young McMichael – Travis McMichael – shot Ahmaud Arbery down, and that he didn’t have to try to beat retired because the state has a strong Stand Your Ground law.

Fossett: Self-defense claims in the United States seem to carry a lot of weight. Obviously, they are enshrined in law with Stand Your Ground laws, but the argument is also a very powerful way to woo juries and the media. Why is that?

Light: One thing that is truly unique to the United States is that we have more weapons than human beings. Not only do we have so many guns, they are increasingly unregulated guns. Since 2014, each state offers a route, with many variations, by which a citizen can carry a firearm concealed in a public space. Even where I am in Massachusetts, where gun regulations are pretty strict, I could, if I wanted to, apply for a concealed weapon license. More and more, we have states – 21 states as of this summer – that allow simple constitutional wearing, where you don’t need a license or training to carry a gun in public space.

So that makes the United States unique: A, all those laws that say you can claim self-defense when you’ve killed someone, and B, the ability to carry lethal weapons in public space for the sake of self-defense. There is no other country where we have this legal landscape in combination with the availability of firearms.

Now on the cultural front… Our nation is so anchored in an ongoing logic of principles of racial exclusion and, I would say, gender. And we see them in the way our laws are judged every day.

So the Stand Your Ground laws, for example, at first glance, appear neutral. But look at the different ways in which self-defense cases are judged today. Obviously, we do not know the outcome of the trial of the three white men who shot Ahmaud Arbery after having pursued him in the neighborhood. We don’t know the outcome of this, but we just witnessed the verdict in the trial of a young white teenager, Kyle Rittenhouse, who took an illegal gun to an unstable location where there was a protest and ended up kill two people and injure a third. He claimed self-defense and the jury acquitted him of all charges.

But let’s look at a different case. When we look at the case of Cyntoia Brown, a 16-year-old black girl who had been hired for sex by a middle-aged white man. In 2004, she used her gun to shoot and kill him. His lawyers argued that it was in self-defense. And the courtroom found her guilty of murder and she was sentenced to jail. She spent 15 years in prison. So if we look at the cases where if you look at the gender and race, not only of the accused but also of the targeted person, we see a trend.

When a woman uses a gun or tries to resist her greatest statistical threat – a man she knows and has usually left before – a courtroom will usually find her guilty rather than the acquit on the basis of a self-defense argument. There are so many cases that we could look at. If Rittenhouse had been a black teenager, for example, and shot two or three white men at a protest, or pursued the police, or pursued Proud Boys or a militia … What kind of result would it have been? we seen in this trial? I would say it would have been very different.

Fossett: Are you saying that the way laws are judged is racist and sexist? Or are you saying that the laws themselves are based on this kind of inequality?

Light: I think it’s a situation of both / and. If you look back over time at William Blackstone’s treatise on English common law doctrine – and this is what much of US legal doctrine is based on – it appears to be racially neutral. It doesn’t say “any threatened white man who can use a gun to kill the person who is threatening him.” It doesn’t say that; he says that a person who feels threatened in his own home can use force, including lethal force.

This is gendered, in fact, which is fascinating. If you look at the English common law doctrine regarding women, the only case in which women – and it was white women, although this does not say so in legal doctrine – were allowed to defend themselves with violence. mortal is against an assault on their chastity. They were therefore allowed to kill a man who was trying to rape them. However, this man could not be their legally engaged husband as there had been no marital rape at the time.

The laws were initially produced in the context of colonial cover and violence. Thus, indigenous peoples living in North America were not allowed to defend their homes – their castles – against the encroachment of settlers of European descent. Indigenous peoples were not considered to have a right to their own home and therefore excluded from the castle doctrine.

You see it in George Zimmerman’s trial, where they tried to portray Trayvon Martin as this deadly threat that threatened to kill this older, armed guy with a sidewalk. Likewise, they tried to introduce evidence from an Arbery’s past, such as mental health issues, encounters with law enforcement. And luckily, the trial judge in Georgia said it was inappropriate and inadmissible, so they weren’t allowed to bring all of this information.

Fossett: And I also want to talk about the aspect of citizen arrest. How does that fit into this story?

Light: As the Civil War ended, many states in the former Confederacy passed various types of laws, including black codes and citizen arrest laws, to allow armed white citizens, usually males, to continue to subjugate newly freed and formerly enslaved people. And so, the Citizen Arrest Act was a sneaky and clever way to continue the violence of movable slavery, even after it became illegal by the 13th Amendment. For example, laws on the arrest of citizens have been passed in some of the states of the former Confederation, including Georgia.

These laws are rooted in a time when the South tries to continue to cling to patterns of racial violence and resist black citizenship and black economic and political power. Citizen arrest laws essentially allowed armed white citizens to continue on the slave patrol even after slavery was no longer legal. And what we saw happen in February 2020 is that three armed white citizens took this cloak of so called ‘good citizenship’ and patrolled their neighborhood and thought Ahmaud Arbery looked suspicious. . [Ed. Note: Georgia repealed its citizen’s arrest law this year.]

Fossett: What What parallels do you see between this trial and that of George Zimmerman, and what are the crucial differences that you think could make this a different outcome?

Light: In everything I’ve seen of this Arbery killers trial, it seems Judge Timothy Walmsley doesn’t allow a lot of shenanigans in the courtroom. For example, the defense attempted to remove the black clergy from the courtroom. And the judge called the request “reprehensible”.

As for the defense approach, I think it is largely very similar. It’s almost as if what happens in these cases is for the defense to look at the other previous cases to see how they did it and what they did. As I said before, a pattern I see in both the George Zimmerman trial and the McMichael and Bryan trial is the defense reversing the roles of victim and perpetrator to make the unarmed young black man appear – in the case of Trayvon a boy, a teenager, and in the case of Ahmaud Arbery, a young man – seem as monstrous and frightening as they can get. It is therefore a common thread of continuity which is the framing of black masculinity as a deadly threat in these cases.

The other thing that is happening is the portrayal of white masculinity as good citizenship, like good gun guys. And I want to admit that George Zimmerman is Latin. He’s not technically a White either. However, when the police see him walking down the street, they don’t assume he’s a person of color. There is this idea that “good citizens” can go out and patrol other people’s property with guns and threaten people’s lives in the interest of protecting property. They’re playing cops, basically.

And in the case of George Zimmerman and in the case of Kyle Rittenhouse, they totally get away with it based on the claim that they feared for their lives. It is also the other trope: the magic sentence is “I was afraid for my life”. There are some people for whom it becomes the magic, exonerating incantation. When the police say so in a courtroom after killing, especially a person of color, the police get the benefit of the doubt. When these armed white and white citizens say they feared for their lives, they are given the benefit of the doubt, and that’s the other pattern we see here.

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