What If Zimmerman Were Black?

if zimmerman were black‘Stand Your Ground’ double standards exposed

What if the races of the defendant and the victim were reversed in the George Zimmerman murder trial?

Jurors in the Trayvon Martin murder case will tell you that race had nothing to do with their verdict acquitting George Zimmerman of second-degree murder in the shooting death of the unarmed black teen in Sanford, Florida.  Zimmerman—who is biracial and of white and Afro-Latino heritage, yet has played the role of white victim acting in self- defense against a black teen thug—was found not guilty by a nearly all-white jury of six women in the killing of Martin.

Some people are asking, what if the roles were reversed? What if Zimmerman was the shooting victim? Better yet, what if George Zimmerman had been a black man accused of shooting a white teen to death?

The John White case

And yet, such a case exists—but with an entirely different outcome.  Meet John White.  In 2007, White, 54, who is black, was convicted of the 2006 killing of Daniel Cicciaro, Jr., a white teen, in Miller Place, New York, a community of Suffolk County in Long Island.  He was sentenced to 2 to 4 years for manslaughter and criminal possession of a weapon.  White faced a maximum of 5 to 15 years behind bars.  The incident took place outside White’s home, when White was confronted by Cicciaro and his friends.

The White trial, not unlike that of Zimmerman, had racial overtones from the start.  White’s 19-year-old son Aaron awoke him to tell him that a group of kids was coming over to come to kill him.  A teenage girl, a friend of Cicciaro, had received a threatening message from Aaron’s MySpace account as an online prank.  It turned out to be a hoax. Michael Longo, Aaron’s friend, admitted he logged on as Aaron and sent the message to the girl.

Cicciaro, who was reportedly drunk,  and four of his friends came to the White house, reportedly shouting racial epithets at the White family and threatening to rape Aaron’s mother— in an apparent attempt to defend the honor of the white girl.

According to White— who had heard stories of the Klan terrorizing his family in Alabama years ago—he was descended upon by a white lynch mob.  He and his son each took a gun.  Mr. White said he wanted to scare off the mob, and also claimed he was protecting his family.  He told the boys to leave, and claimed his gun accidentally discharged.  Police claimed Cicciaro was shot at point-blank range, and died in the hospital.

John White was released after serving only five months of his sentence—a pardon from New York Governor David Paterson on the way out of office.

White, not unlike, claimed self-defense against the threat of Daniel Cicciaro.  Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who was in his car at the time of the incident, claimed Trayvon confronted him, knocked him to the ground, punched Zimmerman and slammed his head into the pavement.  As a defense, Zimmerman argued he discharged his weapon to protect himself.

But the two cases differ in one important way: Florida has a stand your ground law, while New York does not.   In New York, there is a duty to retreat anywhere outside one’s home, meaning, and the person must first retreat from an attack if it is possible to do so safely.

Meanwhile, inside one’s home, a person can use deadly force, provided he or she did not provoke the incident.

‘Stand Your Ground’

Trayvon9But in Florida, conservative groups including the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council lobbied for a “Stand Your Ground” law, which gives immunity to those who use deadly force due to a reasonable fear of harm—whether in the home or in public places, and without a duty to retreat.  The law was introduced in Florida in 2005, and as John Nichols of The Nation notes, the state lawmakers who passed the legislation were ALEC members. The NRA lobbyist who pushed for the Florida law worked with ALEC-affilated legislators on a model Stand Your Ground law.

Since ALEC devised the model, 26 states have adopted identical or similar versions of it, according to the Center for Media and Democracy’s PRWatch.

The law, which applies in civil and criminal cases, has led to an increase in homicide rates, according to a study from Texas A&M University.  Further, based on an analysis by the Tampa Bay Times of nearly 200 cases, the law has disproportionately impacted black victims.  Critics had warned of a “Wild West,” “shoot ‘em up,” vigilante mentality that such legislation would produce.  In a speech to the NAACP, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the Stand Your Ground laws encourage violence and “undermine public safety” and encourage violence.

“It’s time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods,” Holder said in a speech to the NAACP. “These laws try to fix something that was never broken,” he added.

Meanwhile, in light of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, Zimmerman was not charged until six weeks after Trayvon’s killing.  In addition, the judge in his trial instructed the jury, “If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

When blacks invoke the law

Further, “Stand Your Ground” has failed to serve other African-Americans who have invoked the law.

In November 2012, a multiracial Tampa jury found a black man named Trevor Dooley, 71, guilty of manslaughter in the shooting death of David James, 41, his white neighbor.  He was sentenced to 8 years in prison.  The shooting took place in a basketball court in front of James’ 8-year-old daughter, in what began as a fight over a skateboarder.

Dooley—who is 5-feet-7 and 160 pounds—said he shot James—who was 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds— because the man had his hands around Dooley’s neck and attempted to take his gun.“Do you really think that if it was the other way around and the skin color would be different we would be here today? … We wouldn’t,” Dooley told reporters.

“It’s time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods,” Holder said in a speech to the NAACP. “These laws try to fix something that was never broken,” he added.

marissa alexander

Marissa Alexander

Meanwhile, in a town 125 miles from Sanford, Florida, Marissa Alexander, 31, a black mother of three, was sentenced last year to 20 years for firing a warning shot at her husband who she said was abusive and threatening her.  Alexander had a protective order against the man, who according to her attorney “had put his hands on her and there was a fight in the bathroom.”  No one was injured, and the judge refused to allow Alexander to invoke “Stand Your Ground” due to “insufficient evidence that the Defendant reasonably believed deadly force was needed to prevent death or great bodily harm to herself.”

The judge concluded that Alexander’s decision to come back into the home with the gun rather than retreat “is inconsistent with a person who is in genuine fear for her life.”  Alexander had rejected a 3-year plea deal, and was subjected to strict mandatory sentencing for crimes involving a firearm.

David A. LoveState Attorney Angela Corey, the prosecutor in the Zimmerman trial, stands by her handling of the Alexander case. Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., the NAACP, Martin Luther King III and others have shown support for Alexander.

But the different outcomes in the cases of George Zimmerman and John White provide further proof that justice is not blind, and race plays a front-and-center role in the administration of American justice. African-Americans seem to get the short end of the stick.  Now is the time to get rid of the “Stand Your Ground” law.

David A. Love
The Grio

Thursday, 17 July 2013

Published by the LA Progressive on July 19, 2013
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About David A. Love

BlackCommentator.com Executive Editor, David A. Love, JD, is a lawyer and journalist based in Philadelphia, and a contributor to the Progressive Media Project, McClatchy-Tribune News Service, In These Times and Philadelphia Independent Media Center. He contributed to the book, States of Confinement: Policing, Detention, and Prisons (St. Martin's Press, 2000). Love is a former Amnesty International UK spokesperson, organized the first national police brutality conference as a staff member with the Center for Constitutional Rights, and served as a law clerk to two Black federal judges. His blog is davidalove.com.