Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ Convictions Have Racial Bias

September 23, 2015

Thirty-three states have passed so-called ‘Stand Your Ground’ (SYG) laws, allowing an individual to use force – including deadly force – in self-defense without any necessity of first retreating from the situation.

justice-trayvonFlorida passed the first such law in 2005, and it created a national controversy in early 2012 when George Zimmerman pursued and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, and avoided a murder conviction with a self-defense claim. Concerns arose as to the role race played in the Zimmerman-Martin confrontation and Americans began to debate the legitimacy of a law justifying the shooting of unarmed individuals. A new study, called “Race, Law, and Health: Examination of ‘Stand Your Ground’ and defendant convictions in Florida” and published in the October 2015 issue of the journal Social Science & Medicine found these concerns to be well-founded.

A research team led by a St. Louis University practicum student (now a staff member in the Division of Public Health Sciences) and including two Institute for Public Health scholars investigated the application of Florida’s SYG legislation from 2005–2013, using data compiled by the Tampa Bay Times. Performing advanced statistical analysis of the 204 cases during that time period, researchers found “disturbing” evidence that “there indeed is a quantifiable racial component in the impact of the SYG law in Florida; namely, a suspect is twice as likely to be convicted of a crime if the victim is White, compared to when that victim is not White.” The article goes on to liken their findings to those identified in a law enforcement study performed prior to the civil rights era, “with strict enforcement for crimes when the victim is White and less rigorous enforcement when the victim is non-White.”

Melody Goodman, PhD, MS, of Washington University’s School of Medicine, explained that this justice issue also impacts public health. “Laws should protect and promote healthy communities,” she said, noting that systemic discrimination such as that found in Florida SYG disproportionately damages the health and well-being of minority groups.

This project initially came to Goodman via a phone call from her mentor, Harvard University biostatistician Marcello Pagano, PhD, who had read an article that he thought used the Tampa Bay Times data incorrectly and derived misleading results. He encouraged her to update the data set and conduct another, more thorough investigation. Saint Louis University graduate student Nicole Ackermann chose to work with Goodman and Pagano and to adopt this research as her practicum project, allowing it to be completed without any special funding. Washington University’s Cassandra Arroyo-Johnson, PhD, and Saint Louis University’s Keon Gilbert, DrPH, assisted.

Goodman appreciated the collaboration between student Ackerman with junior and senior faculty members of varying degrees (epidemiology, biostatistics, and health education/behavior), which created a vibrant learning environment for the whole team. She hopes to do more similar research projects in the future, but faces difficulty collecting necessary information. “The challenge is that there’s a limited amount of data collected, and it’s collected differently across different jurisdictions,” she said. Many media outlets are leading the way in this process, but generally they do not have the scientific expertise to compile data systematically for research.

Next, Goodman and the team plan to enlist the help of legal experts and other social science and public health professionals to analyze The Guardian’s database of police killings.