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Attorney general: Stand-your-ground laws ‘sow dangerous conflict’

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at the Delta Sigma Thetas Social Action luncheon, part of the sorority’s 51st National Convention in Washington, Monday, July 15, 2013.

Updated Tuesday, July 16, 2013 | 5:10 p.m.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Stand-your-ground laws that allow a person who believes he is in danger to use deadly force in self-defense "sow dangerous conflict" and need to be reassessed, Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday in assailing the statutes that exist in many states.

Holder said he was concerned about the Trayvon Martin slaying case in which Florida's stand-your-ground law played a part.

But he added: "Separate and apart from the case that has drawn the nation's attention, it's time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods."

George Zimmerman was acquitted over the weekend of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in Martin's 2012 death in Sanford, Fla. Holder said the Justice Department has an open investigation into what he called Monday the "tragic, unnecessary shooting death" of the unarmed Miami 17-year-old.

He urged the nation then to speak honestly about complicated and emotionally charged issues. A day later, he seemed to shift away from the specific case to one of those issues — the debate over stand-your-ground.

"There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if — and the 'if' is important — no safe retreat is available," Holder told the NAACP.

The country must take a hard look at laws that contribute to "more violence than they prevent," Holder said during a speech before an NAACP convention in Orlando, about 20 miles from the courthouse where Zimmerman was cleared of the charges three days earlier. Such laws "try to fix something that was never broken," he said.

Martin's shooting shined a light on Florida's stand-your-ground and similar laws around the nation. Most say a person has no duty to retreat if he is attacked in a place he has a right to be and can meet force with force if he fears death or great bodily harm.

Sanford's police chief cited the law as his reason for not initially arresting Zimmerman in February 2012. Zimmerman told police Martin was beating him up during the confrontation and that he feared he would be killed.

Though stand-your-ground was never raised during trial, Judge Debra Nelson included a provision about the law in the instructions that allowed jurors to consider it as a legitimate defense.

"But we must examine laws that take this further by eliminating the common-sense and age-old requirement that people who feel threatened have a duty to retreat, outside their home, if they can do so safely," Holder said.

The defense skipped a chance to ask that Zimmerman have a stand-your-ground hearing before trial. If the judge had decided there was enough evidence that Zimmerman acted in self-defense, she could have tossed out the case before a jury heard it.

"Stand-your-ground laws license vigilantism and we should all worry about that," said Benjamin Jealous, the NAACP's president and CEO, after Holder's speech.

Holder on Tuesday only briefly touched on a possible federal civil rights case being brought against Zimmerman. And legal experts say such a case would be a difficult challenge.

Prosecutors would have to prove that Zimmerman was motivated by racial animosity to kill Martin. The teen was on his way back to his father's fiancee's house after going to a store when the neighborhood watch volunteer saw him and followed him in the community of about 50,000, which is about one-third black.

Civil rights leader Al Sharpton, who has been one of the most vocal champions of a federal investigation, acknowledged Tuesday there are possible legal hurdles. Still, he said "there is also a blatant civil rights question of does Trayvon Martin and the Trayvon Martins of this country have the civil right to go home."

Saturday's acquittal has inspired "Justice For Trayvon" protests around the nation. Most have been peaceful, although vandalism and violence happened in Los Angeles.

Dozens of protesters carrying signs demanding justice for Martin crammed into the lobby of Florida Gov. Rick Scott's office Tuesday and refused to leave until the governor either met with them or called lawmakers back to Tallahassee to address issues like the state's stand-your-ground law. Many planned to spend the night in the Capitol building.

Despite the challenges of bringing a federal civil rights case, some NAACP members said they wanted swift action.

Tony Hickerson, an NAACP member from Seattle, said he would be disappointed if he doesn't see the Justice Department taking action within a month.

"I heard what he (Holder) said, and I don't question his sincerity, but I'd like to see swift action in this case, and I haven't seen that yet," said Hickerson. "His words were eloquent but I need to see some action before I get enthusiastic."

Added Hickerson, "This is a very obvious case. How much thinking do you have to do?"

In his comments referencing the Zimmerman case, Holder offered a story from his own personal experience — describing how when he was a young black man his father had told him how to interact with the police, what to say and how to conduct himself if he was ever stopped or confronted in a way he thought was unwarranted.

"I'm sure my father felt certain — at the time — that my parents' generation would be the last that had to worry about such things for their children," Holder told the NAACP convention. "Trayvon's death last spring caused me to sit down to have a conversation with my own 15-year-old son, like my dad did with me. This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down."

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  1. Comment removed by moderator. Inappropriate

  2. Stand-your-ground laws are correct and needed. Why should anyone always be obligated to retreat if that possible?

    That said, I would dearly love to know what was said or done that provoked the first punch in the Zimmerman case. Without knowing that (and only one person knows the truth now) we can never be sure the correct verdict was reached.

    Speaking more directly to this point, I think Holder is participating in nothing more than a PR campaign now.

    By the way, there was a (not so?) subtle implication that had Zimmerman NOT shot Martin, but had taken the beating until the cops (who were already en route) had arrived, then Martin would have been fully justified in standing his ground against Zimmerman. That might have been the case, but because we have only one story now it will never be known.

    But for Holder to make that implication is blatant hypocrisy that borders on racism.

    As for his stories about discussions that black fathers have with their sons, *any* parent with common sense (especially in Las Vegas) tell their children the same thing. I know I've told my children that. And at the same time told them to never assume that cops are always the good guys.

    Be respectful, and have a camera or recorder going if possible.

    Holder's speech did nothing but fuel the flames of racism that still exist today, and was irresponsible in my opinion.

  3. When being followed by a stranger, as a kid you were always told to run. Run away, get away, go to a neighbors house. You were never told (unless you had an idiot for a parent) to go confront that person. Defending yourself physically is your last resort. Exhaust all other options (fleeing, calling 911, knocking on a neighbors door, anything to get away). It has nothing to do with "obligated to retreat" and everything to do with your safety. I had an uncle who was a cop and he always said if approached by someone with a gun, take off. Chances are he won't shoot. Second chance is he will miss. The advice was "get away" rather than getting into a brawl. Too many cowboys who feel their dignity comes first and want to fight end up getting shot and killed.

  4. TAP: because its true!

  5. TomD1228,

    I won't disagree that in many cases (even most?) common sense says to run like hell and hope the other guy is a poor shot or lazy. But that does not imply an obligation to do so.

    "Stand your ground" can be applied on many different levels, not just physical confrontations. But even on that level, a simple example is that of a kid standing up to a playground bully and beating the crap out him (the bully) when he (the kid) has had enough of being taken advantage of. You can run home to Mommy only so many times before you get tired of not getting relief.

    This entire discussion is indicative of a much deeper problem; Society (beginning with the schools) is telling us that we should not take responsibility for ourselves, but rely upon it (society) to do so for us. And this is turn is eroding self-respect, and respect for others.

  6. It sure seems like a lot of people don't read or selectively remember what they do read. Zimmerman didn't go for the Stand Your Ground hearing, but the jury discussed Stand Your Ground before delivering the verdict and by their admission played a role in the outcome of the trial. You're entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.

  7. I don't equate running from a stranger the same as running from the school bully time after time. There's a time to defend yourself and there's a time to run. In the dark, rainy, stranger is 20 feet behind you and you think following...you try and get away. That is TOTALLY different than a school bully situation. There will be a time to defend yourself.

    Not take responsibility for ourselves? I think it's more or less parents no longer instilling in their children respect for others. Why should the ones brought up with respect, dignity, politeness have to be the ones to risk bodily harm to teach those who have none? Longevity has its place in this world. I don't want to go early in a fistfight with a loser over an inadvertent bump in a bar.

  8. There is every bit as much racism and hatred in the North and elsewhere (i.e. California) as there is in the South, it is merely expressed in different ways.

    If you don't think so just look at the LAPD and Rodney King or the white truck driver who was pulled from his vehicle during the aftermath of the Simpson verdict.

    Heck, just read the comments from the citizens of Las Vegas and you can see plenty of racial and ethnic hatred from *all* sides.

  9. So Holder, who is surrounded by armed security, wants to make it tougher for you (and me) to defend ourselves, is that it? He wants to make it easier for teen punks/criminals/druggies such as Trayvon to terrorize neighborhoods by putting those who defend themselves, their families, their neighbors and their property from teeny-bopper low-lives such as Trayvon Martin, is that it? More of the same from Commie-lites such as Holder who want to disarm honest law-abiding citizens. Good luck with that approach, Holder. It'll be a cold day in Hell before U.S. citizens allow that to come to fruition!

  10. Zimmerman should have been at home watching TV instead of playing policeman. In police work you get into one violent confrontation after another and then sit in one court room after another. Welcome to police work. Some fun!
    Stand your ground....foolishness! Many who get into gun fights get shot themselves. The rest get vast legal bills. Shoot someone in this town you better have at least a $30,000.00 retainer to get your legal defense started....Good Luck

  11. Talk about uninformed. When you read some of the above comments you don't know whether to laugh or cry. Read Tom Franklin's above 0105 comment. People in Nevada are polite and we don't seem to have much road rage?????

    Nevada is one of the most violent states in the country. Misogyny is rampant. 40% of women claim to be victims of domestic violence and we lead the nation in women shot to death by men. Newspapers publish self-defense shootings. They need to do follow-ups a few years later and find out how many of these people have any liquid assets left.

    Tom.. You go ahead and shoot somebody with your equalizer and you're going to be suffering for the rest of your life.

  12. Stand your ground seems to be abused in OTHER SITUATIONS, not by Z. I've heard some of the debate where law enforcement says gang-bangers get away with murder by CLAIMING stand your ground when they've killed the only witnesses. Law enforcement then often does NOT have other evidence to prosecute the murderers.

  13. Mr. Fink 5:08. It does sound like Holder is concerned about HIS safety but not yours or mine. Ditto with his refusal to enforce our laws at the federal level wasting his time with convoluted explanations for Fast N Furious and such that he has limited time for HIS JOB--enforce our LAWS.