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ONU examines self-defense, “stand your ground” laws and the Trayvon Martin case.


As Ohio’s state legislature considers legislation that would expand so-called “s ground” rights to controversial levels, Ohio Northern University is hosting a Cultural Conversation Hour to examine House Bill 203 against the backdrop of the Trayvon Martin killing and other, similar homicides.

C. Antoinette Clarke teaches criminal law and juvenile justice at ONU’s Pettit College of Law and serves on the Board of Directors for Ohio’s ACLU Foundation. She will present “Shoot First, Ask Questions Later: Self-Defense, Stand Your Ground, and the Trayvon Martin Tragedy” in the Moot Court Room in the College of Law on Tuesday, Oct. 8, at 11 a.m. The event is free and open to the public.

“Stand your ground” laws are amendments to traditional self-defense laws regarding the provision known as duty to retreat, the requirement that a person removes him or herself from a dangerous situation if at all possible. The most common version of this is called the Castle Doctrine and refers to situations where an individual believes to be at risk of death or grievous bodily harm while inside his or her home. The Castle Doctrine allows the use of deadly force in this situation.

Over the past decade, many states have passed expansions to self-defense laws that go well beyond the Castle Doctrine. The most controversial of these expansions remove the duty to retreat entirely, as long as the person who is threatened has a legal right to be there and is not committing a crime. Ohio H.B. 203, as currently written, would expand Ohio’s law to this extent.

“We are talking about public sidewalks and sporting arenas and all kinds of places that situations could get completely out of hand,” says Clarke. “It’s a very dangerous kind of precedent that invites the wild, wild west.”

Clarke believes it is important for citizens to understand what the proposed law will do and how existing laws in other states are working.

“I don’t believe the law is working in other states the way those legislatures intended. And I think that has to be spotlighted.”

There is no more relevant case study than the 2012 Travyon Martin killing in Florida. George Zimmerman claimed he shot and killed 17-year-old Martin in self-defense after Martin attacked him. Zimmerman never sought protection under Florida’s “stand your ground” provision, but the law was integral to the case gaining national attention.

“The police didn’t initially arrest Zimmerman because of Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ law,” says Deirde Keller, associate professor of law. “Zimmerman had asserted a credible self-defense claim, and, under the law in Florida, the police were actually barred from arresting him in that situation.”

The public outcry over no charges being filed against Zimmerman led to nationwide social action. 2.2 million people signed an online petition to demand Zimmerman stand trial for his role in Martin’s death. High school students in Florida and in other states staged walkouts from school, and citizens and celebrities alike took to social media to express their feelings on the matter. Media outlets provided extensive coverage of the trial, and Zimmerman’s acquittal further polarized an already divided nation.

“I think this conversation is so necessary because, as we saw with the Trayvon Martin case, people gain their understanding of the law from the pundits, rather than reading the law themselves. So they think they know what it means, and it isn’t until we get a string of tragedies that people start to critically examine the law,” says Clarke. “My posture on it is that the jury was right. They followed the judge’s instructions correctly. It’s the law that’s wrong.”

According to Keller, “stand your ground” laws have completely changed the way self-defense is argued in the courts. Currently in Ohio, self-defense is an affirmative defense that the defendant has to prove in court. “Stand your ground” laws flip the burden of proof to the prosecution. The state has to disprove the defendant’s claim of self-defense, something that is difficult to do when a situation ends in a fatality and there is only side of the story to hear.

Clarke hopes that Tuesday’s forum will educate those in attendance on what H.B. 203 truly means and, in doing so, protect them from potential dangerous situations they may encounter.

“I think we have to get past the emotion. I think we have to get past our outrage on this and look at what we need to do to stem this tide. If we can stop similar situations from happening and let the law do what the law is supposed to do, then everyone can breathe easier,” says Clarke.

“Everybody seems to me to be anticipating confrontation. This is not a good posture. This is not a good place to be. I think we need to be working towards understanding, and hopefully this will help.”