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Does Race Make A Difference To 'Stand Your Ground' Laws?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're going to spend the first part of this hour talking about a case in Florida that drew so much national attention at the end of last year and the first part of is one. And that's the killing of the unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin by the neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Now the new police chief in Sanford, Florida has made some big changes in the Neighborhood Watch Program there and we'll tell you about those.

But first, we want to talk about the Florida law that was thrown into the spotlight because of the shooting - the so-called Stand Your Ground Law. It was before a Senate panel this week. The panel was considering proposals that would require guidelines and training for neighborhood watch programs. Among those testifying on Tuesday was Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin. She told the panel that the law does not work and encouraged lawmakers to amend stand your ground. Most Republicans defended the law, in particular, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz who had this to say.


SENATOR TED CRUZ: So the notion that stand-your-ground laws are some form of veiled racism may be a convenient political attack, but it is not born out by the facts remotely.

MARTIN: Now Senator Cruz went on to say that, quote, in Florida, the data show that African-American defendants have availed themselves of the Stand Your Ground Law more frequently than Anglo defendants, unquote. We wanted to take a closer look at that statement. The numbers come from a database compiled by the Tampa Bay Times this summer after Trayvon Martin's death. But they've also been interpreted by a number of groups with different perspectives. So we wanted to go to the source. So we've called Pulitzer Prize-winner Chris Davis, the investigative editor at the Tampa Bay Times, and he's with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

CHRIS DAVIS: Hi, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So first of all, tell us about the process of building the database.

DAVIS: Sure. Well, we spend a lot of time trying to track down stand-your-ground cases because there is no one source of information about those cases. No one's keeping track of which ones are happening and what the results are. So we assigned about six people to just start digging and looking for these cases using public records and media coverage. And we pieced together every case we could find and took a look at the circumstances around those cases.

MARTIN: Obviously, we are interested in the racial aspects of the case because your database is being cited by people with perspectives on both sides of it. In fact, you know, we mentioned Senator Ted Cruz who was citing an interpretation of the data from a conservative blog. But we've also heard people with very different politics citing the information. Here's Bill Maher on his show "Real Time."


BILL MAHER: Let me give you some of the stats I have on this. In stand your ground states, whites are 354 percent more likely to be found justified killing a black person than a white person killing a white person.

MARTIN: Well, he's talking about across states, not just Florida. So what does your data show? Do you believe that your data shows that any one race benefits more from the law than another?

DAVIS: I would say that it depends on what you're looking at. So if you look at the race of the defendant, there was no real difference between outcome in cases based on race. Black defendants and white defendants were treated roughly the same at every level of the process when claiming stand your ground. When you looked at the race of the victim, however, there was a difference. And so if your victim was black, you were more likely to win your stand your ground argument than if your victim was white.

MARTIN: Do you have any idea why that might be?

DAVIS: Well, you know, the experts that we talked to talked about sort of an idea in the criminal justice system that has been an issue for many decades, and that is that we often see juries and many prosecutors and judges treating black and white crime differently.

MARTIN: So the relevant factor you found in difference was not the race of the defendant or the perpetrator - the relevant factor in your data was the race of the victim?

DAVIS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And that people who killed black victims were more likely to be found justified in doing so under this law?

DAVIS: That's correct.

MARTIN: You re-ran the numbers with updated information. Has anything changed since the summer of 2012?

DAVIS: No, nothing's changed. There've been additional cases, and there've been cases that began but were not completed when we did our original analysis, and we re-ran those recently and the results are exactly the same.

MARTIN: You also found, though, that apart from this issue that we're focusing on and that the Senators have focused on last week, and that other commentators have focused on, the law was used in ways that might surprise the people who drafted it and passed it. Can you just talk a little bit about that?

DAVIS: We found cases where I think an average person would think it was crazy that someone got away with killing someone. You know, they were shooting people in the back. They were leaving a confrontation to go get a gun and returning and then killing someone, they were in a gang shootout or a drug deal gone bad, and these defendants were claiming stand your ground under these circumstances and going free.

MARTIN: You also found that geography did play a role in how effective this defense was.

DAVIS: I don't think that we found that geography specifically played a role, but just that where you were could depend on the outcome - what judge heard your case that day, what prosecutor was the one who reviewed the cases - because we found that very similar cases could have the exact opposite outcome. We found case after case where the circumstances, in a broad sense, seemed very similar. Yet, one defendant would go free and the other would go to prison.

MARTIN: Do you have a sense that your data is influencing the way this law is viewed, as more people find out what the effects are and how varied they are?

DAVIS: I think that the reporting shows that there are issues certainly with the law and how it's being applied. I don't know that it will amount to any policy changes, at least in the state of Florida. I do think that there's an increasing awareness from reading our reporting and other sources of information about uneven applications of the law, specific examples where justice doesn't seem to have been served. And probably also, though, an awareness that - it doesn't appear on its face that Florida's police are out there willy-nilly justifying when a white person kills a black person, but not when a black person kills a white person. That there are folks of all races who are using the law.

MARTIN: Chris Davis is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He's the investigative editor at the Tampa Bay Times. He was kind enough to join us from the studios at the newspaper. Chris Davis, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DAVIS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.