“Stand your ground” laws are designed to short-circuit the checks and balances built into our system of jurisprudence. Such laws are a solution in search of a problem. In the United States, the total number of justifiable homicides have steadily increased from 196 in 2005 to 278 in 2010, despite a decline in the total number of overall killings during the same period. It is not a coincidence that justifiable homicides began to rise at the same time “stand your ground” laws began to proliferate.
Rainbow Push Coalition has filed suit because citizens must be able to believe in and rely on the law. For them to do so, the law must be as clear and predictable as possible. With “stand your ground,” there is no rational way to predict how homicides will be treated in Georgia.
“Stand your ground” allows individuals who have a “reasonable belief” that someone will commit a crime against them to use deadly force to prevent such a crime, with no duty to retreat. However, this has not been applied uniformly.
Herman Lee Smith is a 21-year-old African-American man from Carrollton. While attending a birthday party, Mr. Smith observed a young man come into the establishment with a gun in his hand and approach him. That man, Cardarius Steagall, had gone to his car to retrieve his weapon and walked in with the intention of shooting, and killing, a man who was standing directly next to Mr. Smith. Before Mr. Steagall could shoot, Mr. Smith drew his weapon and killed Mr. Steagall in defense of himself and others at the party. Mr. Smith was arrested and charged with murder.
At trial, nearly a dozen witnesses either testified or submitted statements indicating that Mr. Smith was acting in self-defense, and but for his actions many others would be dead. However, despite claiming “stand your ground,” Mr. Smith was convicted of felony murder and is currently serving a life sentence plus 10 years.
Contrast that result with James Christopher Johnson III, a 25-year-old African-American male. When he and his girlfriend were approached by Adam Lee Edmondson in a Newnan bar in March 2012, Mr. Edmondson, a white male, attempted to “hit on” Mr. Johnson’s girlfriend, which resulted in a confrontation and Mr. Edmondson being escorted out.
The next day, Mr. Edmondson returned and again attempted to hit on Mr. Johnson’s girlfriend, resulting in him getting slapped by Mr. Johnson. The two were separated, and the situation calmed. Minutes later, Mr. Edmondson came back to Mr. Johnson, pulled a gun and shot him in the chest, killing him. At trial Mr. Edmondson claimed “stand your ground” as his defense and was found not guilty of all charges.
The formulation of public policy should be driven by data and the desire to preserve, or enhance, public safety. “Stand your ground” laws defy statistical evidence. The public is less safe and less confident in law enforcement because of them. For these reasons, we believe “stand your ground” laws are unconstitutional.
Janice Mathis is a vice president with the Rainbow Push Coalition. Robert Patillo is lead attorney for the Rainbow Push Coalition lawsuit against “stand your ground.”