When You’re Black, the “Stand Your Ground” Law May Not Apply to You

Well, I think it’s safe to say that shit just got real for George Zimmerman. Watching him in his first appearance yesterday — aside from looking at his face closely to see if he had any injuries like a bunch of you idiots did — what I saw was the face of man scared beyond belief. You know, one of those, “how the hell did I get here,” sorta looks. For Zimmerman, it’s too bad yesterday wasn’t one of those days when after waking up the morning after a drunken stupor next to a woman (or man) you fail to recognize, you ask yourself: what in the hell did I get myself into? Instead, Zimmerman was surrounded by a courtroom full of Sheriff deputies and standing in the presence of a judge. For many, this is the moment they’ve been long waiting for. Yep, thank God for small victories, I suppose.

So where do we go from here? Well, it’s yet to be seen whether Zimmerman will actually face a trial by jury. Should his attorney do the obvious, by invoking the “Self Defense Immunity Clause” Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law affords and defendant, Zimmerman’s fate will be left up to a judge. At that point, said judge has the task of deciding whether Zimmerman’s actions were justified or not. If not, well we can expect George “Officer Tackleberry” Zimmerman to face a trial by a jury of his peers; but, that’s only if he doesn’t enter into a plea deal that will most certainly secure him a lesser sentence than what he faces should he as they say in the streets, blow trial.

My guess is that Zimmerman and his attorney are banking on avoiding a trial. I’m suspicious that they wouldn’t want to call the prosecutors bluff to produce any new but damning evidence to refute his self-defense claim. Either way it’s a gamble, and nothing is guaranteed. Take the case of John McNeil for example. Never heard of him? Well, read on and learn more about him down in Georgia:

Not too far from Sanford, Fla., a black man named John McNeil is serving a life sentence for shooting Brian Epp, a white man who trespassed and attacked him at his home in Georgia, another stand your ground state.

It all began in early 2005, when McNeil and his wife, Anita, hired Brian Epp’s construction company to build a new house in Cobb County, Ga. The McNeils testified that Epp was difficult to work with, which led to heated confrontations. They eventually decided to close on the house early to rid their lives of Epp, whom they found increasingly threatening. At the closing, both parties agreed that Epp would have 10 days to complete the work, after which he would stay away from the property, but he failed to keep up his end of the bargain.

On Dec. 6, 2005, John McNeil’s 15-year-old son, La’Ron, notified his dad over the phone that a man he didn’t recognize was lurking in the backyard. When La’Ron told the man to leave, an argument broke out. McNeil was still on the phone and immediately recognized Epp’s voice. According to La’Ron’s testimony, Epp pointed a folding utility knife at La’Ron’s face and said, “[w]hy don’t you make me leave?” at which point McNeil told his son to go inside and wait while he called 911 and headed home.

According to McNeil’s testimony, when he pulled up to his house, Epp was next door grabbing something from his truck and stuffing it in his pocket. McNeil quickly grabbed his gun from the glove compartment in plain view of Epp who was coming at him “fast.” McNeil jumped out of the car and fired a warning shot at the ground insisting that Epp back off. Instead of retreating, Epp charged at McNeil while reaching for his pocket, so McNeil fired again, this time fatally striking Epp in the head. (Epp was found to have a folding knife in his pocket, although it was shut.)

The McNeils weren’t the only ones who felt threatened by Epp. David Samson and Libby Jones, a white couple who hired Epp to build their home in 2004, testified that they carried a gun as a “precaution” around Epp because of his threatening behavior. According to Jones, Epp nearly hit her when she expressed dissatisfaction with his work at a weekly meeting. The couple even had a lawyer write a letter warning Epp to stay away from their property. Samson testified that after they fired him, Epp would park his car across the street and watch their house, saying “it got to the point where my wife and I were in total fear of this man.”

After a neighbor across the street who witnessed the encounter corroborated McNeil’s account, police determined that it was a case of self-defense and did not charge him in the death. Nevertheless, almost a year later Cobb County District Attorney Patrick Head decided to prosecute McNeil for murder. In 2006, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

It has yet to be determined just why it took so long to bring charges against McNeil. But as his attorney has explained, that through the freedom of information act, he found that there were many letters and emails written to the DA requesting that McNeil be brought up on charges. One of the letters happened to be from the widow of the victim; and, in case you may have forgotten, the victim in this case happened to be a white man. And of course, you know how things are in the dirty south.

[…] In 2008, McNeil appealed his case to the Georgia Supreme Court with all but one of the seven justices upholding his conviction. The sole dissent came from Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears who argued, “the State failed to disprove John McNeil’s claim of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.” She went on to write:

Even viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, the evidence was overwhelming in showing that a reasonable person in McNeil’s shoes would have believed that he was subject to an imminent physical attack by an aggressor possessing a knife and that it was necessary to use deadly force to protect himself from serious bodily injury or a forcible felony. Under the facts of this case, it would be unreasonable to require McNeil to wait until Epp succeeded in attacking him, thereby potentially disarming him, getting control of the gun, or stabbing him before he could legally employ deadly force to defend himself.  This is not what Georgia law requires.

As a leading gun rights state, Georgia has both a stand your ground law that permits citizens to use deadly force “only if he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury,” as well as a Castle Doctrine law, which justifies the use of deadly force in defense of one’s home.

[…] Civil rights activist Markel Hutchins agrees and has filed a federal lawsuit challenging Georgia’s stand your ground law because the law is not applied equally to African-Americans. He accuses the courts of accepting “the race of a victim as evidence to establish the reasonableness of an individual’s fear in cases of justifiable homicide.”

Meanwhile, Barber argues that McNeil’s treatment stands in stark contrast to that of George Zimmerman, who has been afforded the benefit of the doubt despite his victim being unarmed. “America’s always had a difficult issue dealing with race, so rather than face it when it’s exposed, the tendency by some is to try and dismiss it. But the reality is you do not see this kind of miscarriage of justice when it comes to whites.” He adds,  “John’s whole life has been taken away from him. His wife is very ill with cancer and she has lost a husband, his sons have lost a father and society has lost a man that was contributing to his community.”

Throughout the Trayvon Martin debacle, it has been said by many that race has played a factor in Zimmerman not being arrested. I’m not too ready to sign off on that idea given that all the facts are not in; and, from the looks of things, much if not all of the new information pertinent to the case has been sealed from the public. What I do know, however, is that I can agree with the notion that race played a huge factor in the case of John McNeil. As much attention that has been brought to Trayvon Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s subsequent arrest. I don’t know how things will turn out. But I believe that with the whole world watching, the legal parties inv9lved will be on their best behavior in the interest of justice. However, legal experts are saying that a second-degree murder conviction of Zimmerman would be hard to pull produce:

Legal experts said the circumstances of the shooting suggest that prosecutors will have a hard time proving that Zimmerman was acting with a “depraved mind” when he pulled the trigger — the standard for second-degree murder.

“Based on the available facts, it’s a huge overreach,” said Miami defense attorney John Priovolos, a former prosecutor, who said Corey will be hard pressed to show Zimmerman had “ill-will, spite, malice or hatred” needed to prove a “depraved mind.”

Former Miami-Dade senior prosecutor David Waksman cautioned that the public must wait for all the evidence to be unveiled, but acknowledged that “this is not going to be an easy case.”

“I think if (Zimmerman) had a bloody nose and some sort of injury to the back of his head, that’s going to be pretty good corroboration to whatever story he came up with,” Waksman said.

Some experts said the prosecutor may have made a tactical decision to charge Zimmerman with the highest possible crime. One reason: The more severe charge keeps him behind bars for now. In Florida, someone facing a murder charge cannot post bond unless a judge holds a hearing and allows bond to be set.

And even if the evidence against Zimmerman isn’t strong, prosecutors can hope he strikes a plea bargain for a lesser charge such as manslaughter — or risk losing at trial, where he could be slammed with a long sentence.

“Now, he’s in a position of having to throw all his eggs in one basket and risk going to trial, and if he’s convicted, his life is over,” said veteran South Florida defense lawyer Jack Blumenfeld.

The difference between second-degree murder and manslaughter is significant. A conviction for second-degree murder with a firearm can carry a minimum mandatory sentence of 25 years in prison; manslaughter carries no minimum sentence.

But Zimmerman’s case may never get to a jury.

Under Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law, a person may not be prosecuted for using deadly force if the person “reasonably believes” he or she is in life-threatening danger. Zimmerman’s lawyer could ask a judge to dismiss the charges if he can prove that it was more likely than not that the defendant was acting in self-defense — a lower standard of proof than the prosecutors must bear at a jury trial.

At the end of the day, I think a media circus will be avoided in one way or another. When this is all over, there will no winners or losers. Should Zimmerman do time or not, the life of Trayvon Martin cannot be revived; and, I believe we will once again miss an opportunity to have a meaningful conversation on race, racial profiling, and the disadvantages faced by minorities within the criminal justice system like John McNeil did.  By the way: why is the national media still ignoring the Daniel Adkins homicide? He is yet another shooting victim of the “stand your ground” law. It’s unclear whether an arrest will be made; but, Adkins is white and the shooter happens to be black.