The Miami Herald, March 25, 2012
Reprinted with permission.
Almost a quarter-century ago — in the halcyon days when human life was seen as more precious than property and people were regarded as something more than impoverished and non-influential corporations — I happened to be present at the tragic and needless shooting death of a black teenager.It was 1988 in Baltimore, Maryland and I was a journalist embedded in the city’s homicide unit, a bystander to a particular tragedy involving an elderly white homeowner and a black kid shot in the head while trying to steal a dirt bike.
As the kid crept from the homeowner’s rear yard with the bike, the old man stood in his rear window, raised a rifle, and shot the juvenile dead. He readily acknowledged that he had done so, noting that he had been a victim of prior thefts and that given his age, he saw no other way to stop the crime.After all, it was his son’s bike. And it was his home. And in shooting the teenager to death, he was protecting all of that. He was a kindly man, exceedingly polite to detectives and prosecutors, unfailingly sincere in his answers.
“Did you feel that you were in personal danger? When you fired the rifle, were you acting in self-defense?” asked the lead prosecutor.“
No,” replied the elderly gentleman.
“I feared that he was going to steal my son’s bike and get away with it. I’m tired of having stuff stolen.”
That long-ago case bears only slight resemblance to the horror show now taking place in Sanford, Florida. There, the victim, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, was not trespassing on anyone’s property. Nor is there any reasonable indication — a trained law officer calls it “probable cause” — to suggest Martin was doing anything wrong, save for walking in public while black. And just as clearly, George Zimmerman, 28, was not defending his own property, or anyone else’s, when he shot Martin.
The manslaughter — if not the murder — of Trayvon Martin may well be street legal. In its zeal to champion property owners and the gun lobby, the state of Florida — specifically its legislature and former Gov. Jeb Bush, who signed the bill into law — have created a legal hole through which the proverbial truck can be driven. Whether by ignorance or neglect, Florida’s leaders have created a world in which anyone can set their own personal standard for taking human life, provided they tell themselves they “reasonably” believe that in doing so they are responding to a potentially lethal threat.
It’s no wonder that professional law enforcement officials oppose these new laws. They are, at best, a license for any fool with a firearm to shoot anyone he decides to fear, and at worst, an invitation to murder.
Conservatives often argue that personal responsibility is the doctrine by which America will heal itself, and yet “Stand Your Ground” offers exactly the opposite. Rather than holding people accountable for taking human life and keeping the burden of proof on those citizens who choose to kill, the new standard requires society to prove that the taking of human life wasn’t necessary.
For American justice, this is not a brave new world. It’s an ugly one.
In practical terms, it’s true that we have, as a society, always accepted a stand-your-ground standard for our law officers — the men and women who are uniquely authorized by the state to take life as a matter of instant, personal deliberation. Every prosecutor understands that regardless of how much training an officer receives, and regardless of how experienced the officer, the decision to use lethal force is terrifyingly subjective. Decisions are made in an instant. Even good cops — well–trained and committed to using deadly force only in the necessary extremity — can, on occasion, produce a bad shoot.
For that reason, grand juries all across the country are told in the wake of a questionable police shooting: “If you believe that the officer thought his life, the lives of fellow officers, or the lives of citizens were in jeopardy, and if you can conclude that it was reasonable for the officer to so believe at the time — even if it turns out that he was wrong — then you should not indict the officer.”
Any more lax standard would give the men and women we charge with protecting society a carte blanche to kill without proper oversight; anything less would make them personally responsible and legally vulnerable for necessary, yet terrifying decisions that we ask them to make in seconds, under considerable duress.
But to grant private citizens — untrained, unsupervised, beholden only to their individual thoughts, biases and capabilities — the very same standards as we give sworn, trained law officers? To allow them to walk the streets and apply deadly force as they see fit, with only their own sense of their own reasonableness to guide them? Really?
The state of Florida and others like it have lost all sense.
That these laws sailed through legislatures and were signed by governors is indicative of a craven national culture, a panicked bunker mentality that now approaches the pathological. Despite becoming the most incarcerative society in the history of the planet, despite spending more and more of our national treasure on prisons and probation officers, drug courts and sentencing judges, despite the elimination of parole and the proliferation of mandatory sentencing, we are still ever more angry, ever more lethal, ever more afraid. Based on the scope and reach of our criminal justice system, Americans are now either the most evil people in modern history, or our view of ourselves, our neighbors and our national collective has been utterly corrupted by our own cowardice and rage.
William Blackstone, the great English jurist, argued famously that a true moral standard for our common law demands, from all of us, a principled, collective restraint: “Better that 10 guilty men escape punishment than that an innocent suffer.”
This is a legal ethos that goes back to the Old Testament, to Genesis itself and Abraham pleading to a just God: “Will you consume the righteous with the wicked?” And God, of course, finding validity and honor in the argument, agrees to spare even a Sodom or a Gomorrah if a righteous minority might be found.
Not so in the gated communities of the great state of Florida. There, today, the possibility that some sneak thieves might escape with some color televisions, or car stereos, or stolen lawnmowers is counted as too great a price for our society to long endure. Better to shoot the odd, innocent teenager death on the street than to tolerate such an affront to American property rights.
All of us are debased by this. All of us — as Americans, as human beings — are simply worth less in this coarsened, brutish culture. Trayvon Martin was worth less, certainly — he was, by standards of the state of Florida, entirely expendable. And with these laws on the books, he will not be the last.
Now, for every case as unambiguous as this one — every case in which the gun-wielding assailant was, say, foolish enough to call police and provide evidentiary equivocations to dispatchers, or in which the victim left evidence of his own honest fears in a corroborated cell phone call to a girlfriend — there will be others in which someone simply walks up and shoots someone they dislike, or fear, or resent.
Now, by the grace of unthinking legislators and cynical governors, murderers can simply declare that they were in fear for their lives, or acting in self-defense, and, absent enough evidence to the contrary, investigators and prosecutors and jurors will be hard-pressed not to rule such thoughts and actions “reasonable” and therefore legal.
A quarter-century ago in Baltimore — a city contending with crime problems more profound than Sanford — a hard decision was made by law enforcement professionals serving a healthier, more courageous America. There and then, prosecutors looked at the case of a young man shot dead for the crime of theft, and they asserted for a society in which the taking of a human life is justifiable only in the most desperate extremity.
True, their suspect was an old man. True, he had been defending his property. And true, too, that prosecutors had no intention of seeing such a defendant incarcerated for his heedless use of lethal force, that they knew they would soon be negotiating with lawyers over a guilty plea and a term of probation for manslaughter. They didn’t want an old man in prison. But neither did they dare to send the wrong message, to suggest to all of us that there are acceptable reasons to kill, if indeed, you do not need to kill.
They charged the crime.
David Simon, a former police reporter with The Baltimore Sun, is the author of the non-fiction “Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets,” an account of a year following the detectives of his city’s homicide unit. He is also the producer of HBO’s “The Wire” and “Treme.”