George Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin over the weekend, successfully using a claim of self-defense to convince six jurors that he was right to shoot and kill the 17-year-old Martin. The case centered around the question of whether Martin was physically aggressive toward Zimmerman in any way — the defense claimed that the teenager bashed Zimmerman’s head into the concrete — or if Martin was simply a victim. Ultimately, the jury decided, the prosecutors could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Martin didn’t engage Zimmerman in a fight, prompting him to use deadly force in self-defense.
Self-defense cases are fairly common in the American justice system. And while in Zimmerman’s case, many feel that justice was left undone for the shooting victim — and that the boy’s race, black, and the man’s, white hispanic, were a deciding factor — the roles are often reversed; there have been notable cases in recent years where what seem to be reasonable self-defense claims by black defendants are dismissed by a jury:
In the middle of a domestic violence incident, believing that her husband was threatening her, Marissa Alexander fired a warning shot into the wall to ward him off. In court, Alexander tried to use a claim of self defense — specifically, Stand Your Ground, the same law that let Zimmerman walk free on the night he shot Martin before later being arrested. As ThinkProgress’s Nicole Flatow previously pointed out, “Alexander would not have needed a Stand Your Ground law to defend her action. While that law goes so far as to authorize unfettered deadly force in self-defense without a duty to retreat, Alexander used significantly lesser force that would fall under a typical self-defense claim.” Ultimately, though, it didn’t matter; her defense wasn’t as successful. Alexander, who had no prior record, was sentenced to 20 years in jail — a mandatory minimum for the crime.
On one fateful night in December of 2005, a black businessman named John McNeil got a call from his son that someone was “lurking” around the backyard. That person turned out to be white 19-year old Brian Epp, a hired contractor for McNeil who had past disagreements with McNeil’s son. When McNeil got home, he told Epp, who was weilding a box cutter, to leave the property several times. After Epp repeatedly refused, McNeil fired a warning shot, which caused Epp to run. As witnesses attest, McNeil then shot Epp in self-defense, killing him. A court rejected McNeil’s self-defense claim, sentencing him to life in prison — but McNeil was lucky; his case drew a ton of media attention, and with it, calls from powerful politicians and the NAACP to reconsider the case. After six years in jail, McNeil’s charge was reduced to manslaughter and he was let free — with many caveats: He must serve out 13 years of probation, during which time he cannot leave the state of North Carolina, and he must pay $75 a month as part of his probation. Unlike Zimmerman, he will be forced to carry the charge permanently on his criminal record. And more than anything else, McNeil can’t get those lost years back; while he was sitting in prison, his mother and wife died.
The case of John White is similar to the Trayvon Martin/ George Zimmerman story, but with racial roles reversed. In 2006, black 54-year-old John White shot dead white 17-year-old Daniel Cicciaro after an altercation at White’s home. White reported that Cicciaro and several other white teens showed up at his door looking to beat up his son. White greeted the group of boys at his driveway, holding a pistol. He reported that Ciccairo “lunged” for the gun, and it accidentally discharged, striking the teenager. When the case went to trial, White characterized the group of white teenagers as a “lynch mob” and insisted he was only trying to defend his family. The jury — made up of 12 people, 11 white and one black — found him guilty of manslaughter. He served just five months in jail before his sentence was commuted by then-New York Gov. David Paterson (D).