The increased pressure on the prosecutors, an FBI investigation, and the national media focus on the Trayvon Martin case stem from public outrage after a teenager lost his life to a shooter who claimed self-defense. In addition to the accusations that the crime was racially motivated, the divisive case also call into question expanded self-defense or “Stand Your Ground” laws in twenty-five states, including Georgia.
These criminal defense laws are rooted in the common law “castle doctrine,” giving an individual the right to use self-defense if threatened on his or her own property. The conflict in this case and in the legislation, focuses on the right the law gives defendants to use deadly force, even when they alleged attacker is not on their property or in pursuit. Earlier versions of the law require that the shooter retreat first, then use force.
In Georgia, it is legal to “stand your ground” with deadly force when faced with a threat of death or serious injury. In 1898, the Supreme Court wrote that there is “no requirement that a victim of an attack first try to escape before using deadly force to stop an aggressor.”
The big question: are the laws simply a “license to kill?”
Essentially, the laws provide a legal defense to prosecution if you kill in self-defense. In the Trayvon Martin case, the shooter was a self-described neighborhood watch captain who claimed that he was justified in shooting the teenager. According to other reports, the shooter was actually the aggressor and it is unlikely that he was using deadly force in self-defense.
Proponents of the stand your ground law include prosecutors, defense attorneys and gun rights advocates who believe that the use of deadly force should be legal under certain circumstances. However, opponents believe that this “shoot first ask questions later” type of law can lead to uncontrolled gunfire and tragedy.
While many of these laws are under scrutiny, it is unclear how the Trayvon Martin case will impact the future of self-defense legislation and whether new language may limit the scope of their application.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Stand your ground law’ in effect in Georgia more than 100 years,” Rhonda Cook, March 31, 2012.