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Stand Your Ground Convictions Reveal Clear Racial Bias

An analysis of 204 Florida cases finds defendants are far more likely to be convicted if the victim is white.
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A rally against Stand Your Ground laws in Florida. (Photo: Light Brigading/Flickr)

A rally against Stand Your Ground laws in Florida. (Photo: Light Brigading/Flickr)

Can you shoot someone, claim self-defense, and get away with the murder? Maybe, maybe not—but your odds are a lot better if the person you attack is black.

That's the chilling implication of a newly published study, which examines 204 cases involving Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law. It reports that, once a series of variables are taken into account, defendants in these cases were twice as likely to be convicted if their victim was white.

"Our results depict a disturbing message," writes a research team led by Melody Goodman of Washington University in St. Louis. "Stand-your-ground legislation in Florida has a quantifiable racial bias that reveals a leniency in convictions if the victim is nonwhite."

The study, which is published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, utilizes a database of Stand Your Ground cases created by the Tampa Bay Times newspaper. (It also updates some of the information found there.)

"A suspect is twice as likely to be convicted of a crime if the victim is white."

Florida passed the nation's first Stand Your Ground law in 2005. As David Ovalle of the Miami Herald explained to NPR in 2012:

Prior to the passage of the law, a citizen in Florida had the duty to retreat when confronted with lethal force or with deadly force or the perception of deadly force. So they - someone had to retreat. But now, the way the law is structured, you can meet deadly force by basically standing your ground. Where you are is your castle, and you have the right to protect yourself. The problem (is that) a lot of the police and prosecutors think that it basically gives carte blanche to shoot first and ask questions later.

Ovalle's "castle" reference is important, in that the law is based on the notion that you are the "king" of your home, and can defend yourself there as you see fit. But as he notes, Florida and 21 other states have rather illogically expanded the definition of "home" to include virtually anywhere a person happens to be passing by.

The researchers examined 204 cases where this statute was cited, at some point in the proceedings, as a defense against the charge of committing a violent act. For each, they noted if the defendant had been convicted, or plead guilty, to a crime as a result of the incident.

Besides the race of the victim and defendant, they controlled for a number of variables that could impact the outcomes of such cases, including the age and sex of both victim and suspect, whether the victim was armed, who was the pursuer, and whether any deaths or injuries resulted from the altercation.

Their analysis revealed that "a suspect is twice as likely to be convicted of a crime if the victim is white, compared to when the victim is not white," the researchers write. "These results are similar to pre-civil rights era statistics, with strict enforcement for crimes when the victim was white and less-rigorous enforcement with the victim is nonwhite."

In a commentary accompanying the study, Valerie Purdie-Vaughns of Columbia University and David Williams of the Harvard School of Public Health describe the findings as troubling, but far from shocking.

"Using implicit methods, psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated a strong and persistent finding: Blackness in the U.S. is linked to perceptions of crime and danger," they write. That strongly suggests that, in the minds of many white jurors, "Blacks are a threat, or a perceived threat."

Since "stand-your-ground laws authorize a person to protect and defend one's own life against threat, or perceived threat," they add, "it is perhaps not surprising that individuals using stand-your-ground laws as a defense were more likely to avoid charges if the victim was black or Latino."

Earlier this year, University of Delaware psychologist James Jones made a similar point. "What we know from our research is that there is a lot of racial and ethnic bias in the judgment of (who constitutes a) threat," he wrote in the American Psychological Association's magazine Monitor on Psychology. "So it's important for us to show inherent bias in laws that use such a subjective criterion for self-defense."

Jones was a member of the American Bar Association task force on Stand Your Ground statutes, which concluded that states should repeal such laws. This new study provides further evidence supporting that argument.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.