The One Graph That Proves Stand Your Ground Laws Help Jurors Let White Defendants Go Free


On Saturday, a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder. While the decision was ultimately based on self-defense, it is widely argued that Florida’s Stand Your Ground statute – which was initially considered by the defense, and which Zimmerman previously studied in a criminal litigation course (despite claims to the contrary) – was at play. The statute allows people to use proportionate force in the face of an attack without first trying to retreat or escape. More than 20 other states have such laws.

At MetroTrends, John Roman and Mitchell Downey reported their analysis of 4,650 FBI records of homicides in which a person killed a stranger with a handgun. They concluded that Stand Your Ground “tilts the [judicial] odds in favor of the shooter.”

In states with Stand Your Ground laws, 13.6% of homicides were ruled justifiable; in non-Stand Your Ground states, only 7.2% were deemed as such. This is strong evidence that rulings of justifiable homicide are more likely under Stand Your Ground.

But which homicides?

Ones similar to the killing of Trayvon Martin, which resulted in a trial decided in favor of his killer, George Zimmerman, last week. A finding of “justifiable homicide” is much more common in the case of a white-on-black killing than it is in any other sort of murder involving a black person. At PBS’ request, Roman compared the likelihood of a favorable finding for the defendant in Stand Your Ground and non-Stand Your Ground cases, and considered the races of the people involved.

The data is clear: Stand Your Ground increases the likelihood of a not-guilty finding, but only when a white person is accused of killing a black person.

Notice, however, that white people who kill black people are far more likely to be found not guilty even in states without Stand Your Ground, and black people who kill whites are less likely to be found not-guilty regardless of state law.

It’s simple: We are already biased in favor of the white defendant and against the black victim. Stand Your Ground laws simply give jurors more leeway to give defendants the benefit of the doubt. This increases the chances that a white-on-black homicide will be considered justifiable, because biased jurors will likely give that benefit of the doubt to certain defendants. Stand Your Ground may or may not be a good law in theory, but in practice, it increases racial bias in legal outcomes.

This article originally appeared at Sociological Images. An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the Zimmerman/Martin case as being based on Stand Your Ground. Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.