I’ve seen the major media outlets describe it a hundred different ways. I’ve seen media them call “Stand Your Ground” law the “License to Kill” law, the “Shoot First and Ask Questions Later” law, and other names that provoke the image of a secret agent or the wild west. I understand that the media needs to distill the news into 5 second sound bites, I just wish the phrases they pick accurately describe the facts, instead of just sounding catchy.
In order to form an educated opinion about what has now become a controversial law, one needs to understand why this is law exists.
There is a misconception that has been repeatedly reported by the media, which seems to imply that if a state does not have a “Stand Your Ground” law, then there is automatically a “Duty to Retreat”. This is incorrect. Most states, including progressive states such as California, Illinois, and New York, do not require this, even if they do not have a specific “Stand Your Ground” law. The reason is that the right to defend yourself from attack is a basic human right. Codifying that right is nice, but at the end of the day it’s just a 2nd layer of protection.
This raises the question, if in most of the states with these laws, there was already no duty to retreat, why do we have these laws in the first place?
Before we get into this question, let me ask one of my own. In our country, should people accused of a crime be innocent until proven guilty? I ask this because I think we can all agree that when our justice system was created, the one central value that we can agree on is that, before sending someone to prison, the government must to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It is this concept that is tied to the idea of the “Stand Your Ground” laws.
Usually, when a person is charged with murder, and a defendant believes they are not guilty, the burden is on the prosecution to prove they committed it beyond a reasonable doubt. However, self-defense cases present a unique problem for the defendant. In order to claim self-defense, you have to confess to the underlying homicide. You are saying, “Yes, I shot the guy, but I was justified.” You’ve done the prosecution’s work for them. They no longer have to prove it was you who pulled the trigger.
I read an article today that bemoaned the fact that when a person claims self-defense, the prosecution has to prove it was not self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt, and that this was a “heavy burden.” Why is “reasonable doubt” perfectly reasonable in other criminal cases, but a heavy burden in self-defense cases? Shouldn’t people who have gone through the tragedy of having to take another life in self-defense be afforded the same benefit of the doubt as we give other defendants?
Now, to get to the heart of the matter. In most other crimes, the prosecution must build up enough evidence that you committed a crime before they can charge you and make you go through a trial. In self-defense scenarios however, since you are confessing to the homicide, without a stand your ground law, he can take you to trial even if he has no evidence that it wasn’t self-defense. Self-defense is something you can raise at trial, and a jury would determine whether you were justified.
“So what?” you ask, “It’s not a big deal you get dragged to trial if it was self-defense, you’ll have your day in court to prove your side.” Anyone who has this attitude clearly has not seen the inside of a murder trial before. These trials could take years. If you cannot afford the bond, which could easily cost you in the tens of thousands (and be non-refundable if you can’t pay in full and have to go through a bail bondsman), you have to stay in jail while waiting for trial. You have to come up with money for attorney’s fees, or live with whatever overworked public defender you might be appointed. You don’t get reimbursed even if you win. If you do have to sit in jail while waiting for trial, your employer is unlikely to keep your seat warm.
In order to help mitigate these issues, “Stand Your Ground” laws shortcut through the process to get to the heart of the matter. To give you a visual, think about it this way. Let’s say that the term “reasonable doubt” means that you are guilty if the court is 80% sure you are guilty. “Stand Your Ground” laws allow you for a hearing up front to argue that you are immune from prosecution because you acted in self-defense. You have to show by a preponderance of the evidence (over 50% chance) that you acted in self defense. If there’s a 51% chance you acted in self-defense, then by definition the court can’t possibly be 80% sure that you are guilty. So, you get immunity, you get your life back in a few months instead of a few years, and it gives incentive for prosecutors to actually gather evidence before dragging you into court.
I believe that people are innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. I have no doubt that no law is perfect, but that our justice system demands that we err on the side of letting people be free rather than possibly putting innocent men in jail. I also do not believe that a person’s life should be destroyed by our justice system simply because they had to defend their lives or the lives of their loved ones. If you believe in these important values in our justice system, then you should also believe that “Stand Your Ground” is a necessary concept to protect innocent people who were forced to take a life due to self-defense.
If there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that it was not self-defense, or that someone was committing a crime or provoked the confrontation, than neither the claim of self-defense nor the “Stand Your Ground” law will help them, and that’s the way it should be.