Opinion : Trayvon Martin and Institutionalized Bias - by Catherine Hanssens and Iván Espinoza-Madrigal

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July 22, 2013

Trayvon Martin and Institutionalized Bias

by Catherine Hanssens and Iván Espinoza-Madrigal

The Center for HIV Law and Policy on the dangers of relying on criminal law as a response to unfounded fears.


In the wake of George Zimmerman's acquittal for killing Trayvon Martin, thousands of Americans from across the country have taken to the streets to decry the latest evidence of the low value assigned to the life of a 17-year-old black boy in the United States.

We do not have firsthand knowledge of the trial proceedings or specific evidence presented to the jury, but news outlets have widely reported that the police botched the initial investigation, the prosecution's forensic expert was incompetent, and an important prosecution witness was not adequately prepared to testify. The state was too squeamish to put the touchy issue of race squarely before the six-woman jury. And the trial judge forbade the prosecution from speaking about racial profiling. Still we are stunned: is there no way to hold Zimmerman accountable for taking the life of a young boy out on a candy run?

At least part of the answer to this question is Florida's "stand your ground" law. This law allows a person who feels threatened to fatally shoot someone even if it is possible to safely avoid the conflict. The law was championed by the National Rifle Association (NRA), which has been working to get similar laws enacted in states across the country.

Florida's version is one of the broadest self-defense laws in the United States. Rather than requiring that a fear of harm be objectively reasonable, Florida requires only a showing of subjective fear. This means that it is sufficient to claim to have been in fear of one's life even if the average person would not have experienced fear in that exact same situation. By placing the state's seal of approval on irrational fear and prejudice, Florida is effectively encouraging senseless violence – even road rage killing incidents.

Bizarrely, it also seems that the subjective fear someone experiences at the sight of a young black man in a hoodie may trump the fear of a violent husband when it comes to reliance on the stand your ground defense, at least in Florida. In 2012, Marissa Alexander, a survivor of domestic violence, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing warning shots to deter her abusive husband from beating her. Ms. Alexander was convicted despite the fact that previously she had sought a protective order against her husband, and despite the presence of her sobbing 11-year-old daughter in the courtroom. Ms. Alexander had never been in trouble with the law, and had given birth to her youngest child less than two weeks before this incident. Clearly, she was not justified in standing her ground in her own home while caring for a newborn and another young child.

As John D. Timoney an experienced police chief and commissioner, observed last year: "[people] feel threatened all the time, whether it's from the approach of an aggressive panhandler or squeegee pest or even just walking down a poorly lighted street at night. In tightly congested urban areas, public encounters can be threatening; a look, a physical bump, a leer, someone you think may be following you. This is part of urban life. You learn to navigate threatening settings without resorting to force. Retreating is always the best option."

Black men, people of color, queer people, transgender people, and those living with HIV historically have been perceived as inherently suspicious, dangerous, and threatening. Rather than address the ignorance and misconceptions that inform negative reactions to marginalized groups, we have turned to criminal laws to control these perceived "threats." We are criminalizing people who are disliked and disfavored, at a substantial cost to individuals, families, communities, and the country as a whole. At a time when many people clamor for less government intervention, we carve out an exception for the criminal justice system used to incarcerate and punish "the other."

As for Zimmerman, had he been HIV positive, and rather than shooting someone to death had engaged in protected, consensual sex, he likely would have been found guilty of a felony and sentenced to decades in prison, even in the absence of HIV transmission. With HIV status used as an aggravating factor in criminal cases, it is not surprising that an estimated 1 in 7 persons living with HIV pass through correctional facilities every year.

As a society, we reject the reliable antidotes of education and self-awareness, relying instead on the state to justify our overreactions and unexamined insecurities. More than most countries, we rely on the criminal law as a response to unfounded fears that we hold regarding those who fall outside of the mainstream. The stand your ground defense that justified killing a young black boy, and the HIV criminalization laws that justify making felons of people with HIV, stand as sad examples of this reality.

Catherine Hanssens is executive director of CHLP and Iván Espinoza-Madrigal is legal director of CHLP. This article was originally published on the CHLP Blog.

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  comments 1 - 7 (of 7 total)    

Frederick Wright, Coachella Valley, 2013-08-01 17:31:01
Robert from Miami the comparison is that some one can shoot down a person for looking like a tug. The same my be implied that HIV or Looking Like one HIV can land a person in Jail. Right now a lot of HIV professional will gossip and plan an attack to try and put a HIV person in Jail for having sex. Yes the board member of ASO and employee gossip about HIV people to presume that if their having sex it is unsafe. Not to long ago Gay people where being drag and burned for looking Gay in the USA.

Jeton Ademaj, Harlem, NYC, 2013-07-29 13:31:13
Zimmerman killing Martin was a tragic outrage, and the subjective standard of FL's Stand Your Ground law + the foot-dragging of local police forced the travesty of an acquittal. HOWEVER, attacking the basic Right To Self-Defense enshrined in Stand Your Ground laws will FAIL. these laws exist bcuz requiring a victim to flee may in fact condemn them...the very act of turning to run eats precious time and can make one more vulnerable. stick to reforming HIV laws, bcuz "gun control" is DOOMED.

Frederick Wright, Coachelle Valley, 2013-07-28 10:18:04
I think that any shooting where a person dies make the person a killer. I am sorry for the young man. The message on the street is clear if one attack another their may be a gun pulled both criminals or one who dresses to impress toughness or the afraid citizen. Here California due to car jacking and gang activities we have expand stand your ground to it is ok to chase and attack in self defense. The message to the teenagers is that the gangs may be cool and hip, however people will fight back.

Robert Mesa, Miami, 2013-07-26 19:23:50
Oh I'm full of it. This is a website people that are hiv poz to meet and get updates on meds and possibilities for cure not to get more bs about poor trayvon, how about6 year old girl from Chicago last week about by gang member, that you don't care about right, you fool

robert, Miami, 2013-07-26 11:25:56
As part of the Gay community I'm super offended that no one, I mean no one in the bias media even picked up the fact that that ignorant 19 year old friend of trayvon, Rachel said in interview on cnn that she told trayvon he should run cause Zimmerman was probably some Gay rapist. And that anyone whose "not that way" feels uncomfortable with men following other guys. I mean clearly homophobic and a backwards mind set stereotype that all Gay men are pretender perves and no one says a word. Sad

robert, Miami, 2013-07-26 11:18:46
I'm reallyso over trayvon martin, so now I can't even go to poz.com workout having to read about this case. It's over. Are there racists yeah, guess what racist are black White, hispanos, Asians etc.. how come no one I mean no one gives a s... about all the Young black men killed by other black men that make up 90 something percent of black male murders. This is not overalla racist country last timei checked our president was 2 term freely elected African American. Stick to HIV issues

Robert Minister, New york City, 2013-07-23 23:25:23
I think you're full of it.

comments 1 - 7 (of 7 total)    

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