The following is an op ed from State Representative LaDawn Jones (D- Atlanta, District 62).
The murder of Trayvon Martin and the lack of knowledge around the Stand Your Ground law have reignited a call for repeal of the law from progressive leaders around the country. I want to offer an alternative. Instead of a full repeal of the Stand Your Ground doctrine, I believe that the better outcome for Georgia would result from the Legislature making reasonable, measured changes to the law.
It is rare that a single public policy issue has implications cutting across the multiple hats I wear in life – mother, wife, State Legislator, attorney, mentor and above all a Christian. Because of the multiple points of view I have, I understand that it’s important that Georgians have information that will help them think through this law and what it means for their communities.
In my first term as a State Representative, I have already seen that even the most thoroughly thought out legislative decisions are often accompanied by unintended consequences. With Stand Your Ground, some of the unintended consequences are foreseeable. However, my goal is not to force my opinion on anyone. Rather, I would like to facilitate a discussion about my experiences with Stand Your Ground to provide an additional perspective to Georgians as we reevaluate our values and law of self-defense.
As the only member of the Georgia General Assembly who has tried Stand Your Ground cases as a Chief Senior Assistant District Attorney and criminal defense attorney, my experiences have given me insight into little known facts about the consequences and advantages of Stand Your Ground. I have personally seen law enforcement, district attorneys, judges and juries work through the decision making process about whether a shooting was justified. Each time a leader calls for repeal of Stand Your Ground, I see the faces of “good guys” that would unjustly be incarcerated today without the law because they were faced with an imminent danger and protected themselves. I cannot, however, ignore the fact that there are many instances where the law completely and obviously failed. I believe the injustice would be as great for the “good guys” who no longer had the benefit of Stand Your Ground as it currently is an injustice to victims whose assailant unfairly used the law. As Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I urge Georgians that before deciding to do away with this law, let’s make sure we fully understand what Stand Your Ground means for us and our society.
This is a good time for us to make an honest assessment of our values and how we want those values protected as it relates to violence in our community. My defense and prosecution work have shown me that in most cases, no one can be 100% certain about fault in any case of violence. Keeping that in mind, what options for defense, if any, do we want available to individuals who are facing an imminent danger? We cannot only look at what we wish would happen, but rather what actually happens daily. What is your personal answer to, “if they come in my house I would…?” I think many may find that the values we profess out loud are different from those we, or our neighbors, family or friends actually practice. Now we must ask – are our values accurately reflected by repealing Stand Your Ground law?
There are reasonable changes that can be made to Stand Your Ground that would bring it more closely in line with our values and vision for society. We should start with creating better, clearer definitions of the terms within the Stand Your Ground law. Who is an assailant? An aggressor? What do we mean when we refer to “imminent” danger? What is required for a person to retreat from an altercation? Legislatively created definitions of these terms would result in more uniform and better decisions by the entire criminal justice process including the police, the prosecutor, the judge and the jury when Stand Your Ground is at issue in a case. Clarity is the answer because the criminal defendant, victim, and those that make up the criminal justice system have one thing in common, they are all human and subject to their own perspectives.
The political, racial and cultural issues surrounding Stand Your Ground cannot be ignored. Yes, there is a reasonable argument that this law had its origin in racial profiling. However, there are many instances, especially in metro areas, where Stand Your Ground has protected the interests of “good guys” of all races when faced with danger. I represented a client named Toby who was attacked by an eight-time convicted robber and drug user. Toby, a business owner, choir member, and registered gun owner shot his assailant to protect himself and his wife at a concert. After incarceration, the system failed Toby several times but ultimately, Stand Your Ground exonerated him. The reality is that there are dangerous unintended consequences that would result from a complete repeal of Stand Your Ground. It is up to the community to decide if their true values make the risk of unintended consequence worth it. There is 100% certainty that without Stand Your Ground, Toby, and many others similarly situated, would have been serving time in jail for defending himself and protecting his wife.
Stand Your Ground is not perfect, but I believe we would be better served by a conversation that includes keeping the parts of Stand Your Ground that work and overhauling the parts that do not work.