On a recent morning, Jonel Edwards spoke with a group of Jacksonville youth. Behind her, a giant screen flashed pictures of young brown faces.
“So how many of you all can name everyone on there,” she asked the handful of high school students sitting in the Edward Waters College sanctuary.
The faces were those of homicide victims — all close in age to the teens that sat in the room. Most were unfamiliar to the students, but there were two they quickly picked out: A hooded Trayvon Martin and capped Jordan Davis.
“Trayvon Martin had a hoodie, you have a hoodie, now,” she said pointing out a student. “Or a lot of you said you listen to loud music, and a lot these have to do with the society that we live in.”
Edwards is a Dream Defender — one of the most visible groups challenging the Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin.
It’s been nearly a decade since Florida legislators enacted the statute, shielding from prosecution those who’ve used force in the name of self-defense. Under the law, individuals who perceive an imminent threat to their lives have a right to defend themselves, even in situations where there is an opportunity to flee the scene.
Since Florida passed the statute, more than 30 other states across the country have adopted similar laws. But it’s Florida that remains ground zero — where a couple of recent racially-charged cases linked to the law have sparked a new kind of apprehension among many within the black community.
“I think that many of our sort of contemporary social issues may start off with their intent as being racial or non-racial but they become racialized because of who's involved,” said JeffriAnne Wilder, professor of sociology at the University of North Florida.
Wilder specializes in race relations.
“Whenever a person of color is in some way impacted negatively by something that may appear to be non-racial, it automatically becomes an issue of race,” she said.
To Jonel Edwards, Stand Your Ground has become an issue of race.
“I definitely think it impacts people of color more than it does other people,” she said. “We live in a world where we base how we view people off of different stereotypes that we have encountered a lot.”
And it’s a sentiment being echoed by others across the state and the country. Angie Nixon organizes for the Florida New Majority, a statewide human rights group focused on building voter participation, particularly among blacks and Latinos.
“A lot of individuals in my community, they just don’t feel safe,” she said. “They feel that the criminal justice system isn’t equitable, isn’t fair and that’s something, again, that we are trying to fight against.”
But whether or not the statute has a larger negative impact on blacks than whites is not a simple question. Its answer is anecdotal and complex.
First of all, there is no statewide or national system to track the number of times Stand Your Ground has been used.
“There hasn’t been a lot of data collected regarding the use of the Stand Your Ground law,” Nixon said. “We believe that the court system and legislature should mandate to track when people use the Stand Your Ground defense so that we can tell whether or not there are huge racial disparities.”
However, in early 2012, following the shooting of Trayvon Martin, reporters at the Tampa Bay Times set out to do the most comprehensive statewide accounting of Stand Your Ground cases to date.
Reporter Ben Montgomery was among the team of about a half dozen reporters who spent the next six months on the assignment. They collected about 200 files of court records, news clippings and police reports.
“I think primarily, one of the most interesting findings was that, of the analysis of nearly 200 cases in which Stand Your Ground was invoked, people who killed a black person went free 73 percent of the time, while those who killed a white person went free 59 percent of the time,” Montgomery said.
But that’s not all they found. The study also found that black defendants went free about 66 percent of the time in fatal Stand Your Ground cases, compared to 61 percent for white defendants.
The findings reflect those reported by the Wall Street Journal in a study conducted the same year.
That study looked at Stand Your Ground cases across the country and found that 15.6 percent of those homicides in which a white person killed a black person were deemed justifiable, compared to about 3.4 percent of homicides in which the perpetrator was black and the victim was white. But the study also found that more black-on-black homicides were ruled justifiable than white-on-white homicides. That’s 39 percent versus 36 percent.
In both studies, the majority of cases involved perpetrators and victims of the same race.
“People come down on both sides of that,” Montgomery said. “We talked with attorneys who regularly represent black men, who suggest that this law benefits their clients. It’s often the case.”
It’s the same point made by Public Defender Matt Shirk of the Fourth Judicial Circuit Court. Since he began in 2009, his office has used Stand Your Ground in just a handful of cases, but they’ve all involved black defendants.
“I will tell you that the half a dozen cases that we talked about where we’ve used Stand Your Ground, I believe all of them we’ve represented African-American men, who were defending themselves, rightfully, and were successful with Stand Your Ground,” he said.
And then, there is the matter of what exactly classifies a Stand Your Ground case. Technically, the defense must first request a hearing to argue for the immunity. That never happened in the very case that thrust the law into the national spotlight: George Zimmerman, accused of killing unarmed Trayvon Martin.
Defense for Michael Dunn, charged with killing local teen Jordan Davis, also never sought Stand Your Ground immunity.
“To assert Stand Your Ground, you file a motion. You allege facts under oath. Neither of those two men did that. They simply raised the traditional self-defense…Stand Your Ground is a much more limited,” Shirk said.
But in both cases, jurors were instructed to consider the statute when deciding on a verdict. The instructions are currently a default of every self-defense case in the state. And three jurors from both cases later said it played a pivotal role their decision-making.
Tampa Bay Times reporter Ben Montgomery says the fact that jurors took the law into account in each case is reason enough to consider them Stand Your Ground cases.
“No matter how you feel about that, it gives another level of protection to those who use deadly force and another opportunity to be exonerated for somebody using that force,” he said.
Then, there's the case of Marissa Alexander, the Jacksonville woman arguing Stand Your Ground after shooting into a wall following an argument with her estranged and reportedly abusive husband. This is Alexander's second attempt at arguing the law. The first time she was denied and eventually handed a 20-year sentence. That decision was overturned, and this summer she'll be retried.
“It seems as though the perception is if a non-person of color uses the Stand Your Ground defense for killing or hurting or injuring a person of color then they’re not penalized to the fullest extent of the law,” said UNF Professor JeffriAnne Wilder. “Whereas, when you see people of color who are using or attempting to use Stand Your Ground that that’s not the same case for them.”
Assistant State Attorney Mark Caliel has watched the law play out time and again in court. Like prosecutors across the state he is a strong opponent of the statute. But says the law itself is colorblind.
“Unfortunately what we see commonly, especially in major metropolitan areas, is the victims of violent crimes in major metropolitan areas are disproportionately minorities,” he said. “Because of that, it appears as if the law is disproportionately affecting African-Americans or minorities when in fact it’s not the race their affecting it’s the group of individuals — the victims of violent crimes — that the law adversely affects.”
Montgomery says until a comprehensive tracking system is put into place, many of the law’s most critical questions will remain unanswered.
Shortly after the Tampa Bay Times report was released, a task force was commissioned by Gov. Rick Scott to examine the law and draft a series of recommendations, but a statewide tracking system has yet to be pursued.
“We’re still arguing for that, that somebody needs to be paying very close attention to these numbers, because how do you know if a law is working? How do you know if there’s justice served, in all these various cases if nobody’s paying attention to how Stand Your Ground has changed the self-defense law,” Montgomery said.
That means scrutinizing the low-profile cases as closely as the high-profile, he said. But with each new case, it seems more people across the state and the nation are paying attention.
“I think our entire nation is looking at the state of Florida, particularly Northeast Florida, under the microscope,” said Wilder. “People are starting to raise their hand and ask tougher and more difficult questions about that.”
You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.