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Retired judge Arthur Burnett Sr. was the first African American United States magistrate, but decades earlier he was just a young man cleaning a restaurant late at night. Police suspected that Burnett had broken into the restaurant. Although he was eventually released, that experience has had a lasting effect on Burnett’s views on race.
“If I had been belligerent… I may not be here alive today talking to you,” Burnett cautioned. “How many black boys’ lives were lost who could have had a promising career like I did?”
The fourth and final regional hearing of the National Task Force on Stand Your Ground Laws—held on Aug. 9 at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in San Francisco—was an opportunity to air concerns about controversial self-defense laws and longstanding social justice issues affecting the African American community.
Stand your ground laws remove the duty to first retreat if an individual believes his life to be in jeopardy. Opponents of stand your ground laws, including the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence term them “shoot first laws.”
Eva Paterson, keynote speaker and president of the Equal Justice Society, said at the onset that “The reason we are here today is because of the murder of [Trayvon Martin].” Paterson took issue with an argument heard in the media that stand your ground laws did not factor into the George Zimmerman case. In fact, Paterson noted that jury instructions and jury comments subsequent the conclusion of the case proved that stand your ground laws were in consideration.
Paterson objected to stand your ground laws for a number of reasons, arguing that the laws encourage vigilantism. “George Zimmerman was judge, jury and executioner of Trayvon Martin.”
Paterson also related statistics about incidences of violence that indicate that African Americans are treated more harshly by the justice system. FBI data shows that when an older White man shoots a younger Black man, it is found to be justifiable in 49 percent of cases, whereas the inverse is only found to be justified in 9 percent of cases. In Paterson’s view, “The Zimmerman verdict was a license to kill black people.”
Thirteen additional speakers offered testimony at the hearing. Their remarks also touched on racial stratification and the impact of stand your ground laws on the African American community.
Pat Rosier, president of the National Bar Association, said that her association was “very, very disturbed by stand your ground laws.” Characterizing them as “bully laws” Rosier said that the NBA is calling for their repeal or amendment of stand your ground laws.
The Bar Association of San Francisco’s deputy executive director Yolanda Jackson also expressed her bar’s displeasure with stand your ground laws. Jackson said that the San Francisco bar will call for a comprehensive study of stand your grounds laws which will include an analysis along racial lines. The bar will call for a repeal of stand your ground laws where they have resulted in more homicides.
The National Task Force on Stand Your Ground Laws is expected to release a report in 2014 with information from hearings and recommendations on the future of stand your ground laws.
The task force is led by the Coalition on Racial and Ethnic Justice. Other partners are the Center for Racial and Ethnic Diversity, which includes the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, and the Council on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Educational Pipeline, as well as the Young Lawyers Division and the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities.