Baton Rouge, LA — The George Zimmerman trial is over, but people still have a lot of questions about Stand Your Ground laws.
So a local law scholar, the police chief, district attorney, and a public defender spoke for an hour about them Thursday for the group Leaders with Vision.
Louisiana is one of more than 30 states with Stand Your Ground laws, which allow people to kill potential attackers in defense of their self or property without having to retreat.
Most states have them, including Louisiana, but there wasn't much interest in them until Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin last year in Florida. Zimmerman's acquittal sparked outrage and rallies across the nation.
"One of the key problems with the Stand Your Ground law is that people don't really understand its provisions," said Shenequa Grey, and associate law professor at the Southern University Law Center and a Stand Your Ground law historian.
Generally, Grey, said, the law is applicable when, "you're where you have a right to be, you're not involved in unlawful activity, and there exists a legitimate right to use force to defend yourself."
In a handful of states, including Florida, people who invoke Stand Your Ground laws can be granted immunity, either by the police officers who investigate the homicide or by a judge during a court hearing.
"It doesn't get better than when you're going to trial, if he's eventually indicted or charged with murder, to have the investigating officer on the witness stand saying that, 'when I got there, I believed your client, and I believed he was standing his ground, and I believed he was justified in committing this homicide," said Michael Mitchell, the chief public defender for the 19th Judicial District.
But Mitchell and Grey both warned that allowing the decisions of officers and judges to influence Stand Your Ground cases can lead to discrimination.
"It doesn't appear that [immunity is] always applied equally along racial lines."
Louisiana's law does not grant immunity the way Florida's does.
"Our job is not going to change whether we have that law or not," said Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie. "Our job is to go out to the scene; investigate whatever has happened; we collect that evidence, we gather the evidence, we collect DNA; we take statements. We do everything on the law enforcement side of it, and then we present that package to either the prosecutor or the District Attorney's office."
"The court and the police department first, they're gonna look to see whether your actions are reasonable or not," added District Attorney Hillar Moore. "If they're not reasonable, I can guarantee you that they're going to arrest you."
There has not been any discrimination in Stand Your Ground cases in Baton Rouge. But Moore said only six of them have been brought brought before a judge, and the majority of them turn into traditional self-defense cases. It is rare for the defense and prosecution to argue Stand Your Ground laws because the intent of the defendant is tough to prove.
"You have to rely on witnesses and their actions, you have to rely on, sometimes, some scientific evidence that you have," Moore claimed. "But it does make it very difficult, and that is the dilemma that our job presents us, is trying to get into someone's head."
If Dabadie had his way, there would not be any Stand Your Ground cases. He said that retaliation is a dangerous idea.
"There is a lot of responsibility that comes with a gun," he cautioned. "And if you're not willing to accept that responsibility, then our suggestion to you is: don't get a gun, get a cell phone that you can keep by your bed. Get a phone that you can keep with you, dial 9-1-1, and get us there. Let us handle the bad guys. That's what we get paid to do.
"It's much better for you to become a witness, as opposed to a victim or a suspect."
But the case that got everyone talking about Stand Your Ground laws ended up having little to do with them. Grey, Mitchell, and Moore all alluded to the fact that the prosecution and defense in George Zimmerman's trial rarely mentioned Florida's Stand Your Ground laws.
"'Stand Your Ground,' in my opinion, had nothing to do with that case," Moore said. "It was a classic case of whether you believe self-defense or not."
"And I think the prosecution in that case failed in making it clear that 'Stand Your Ground' was not used," Mitchell added. The judge in the case did instruct the jury about the Stand Your Ground laws before they deliberated, but the prosecutors, "should have attempted to prevent that instruction from coming in. And had they done so, the result may have been, may have been, different."