Remember the "Killing and Culpability" reader participation exercise I presented in April, featuring the case of a young man in Berkeley, California, who stabbed a fraternity man during a street brawl? If so, you may recall that Andrew Hoeft-Edenfield was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 16 years in prison. Now, I am gratified to see that the troubling case is getting national play as part of renewed debate over what constitutes self defense.
"Had Hoeft-Edenfield been tried in Florida, things might have turned out differently," asserts Brooklyn-based freelance writer Lisa Riordan Seville in a column first published at Crime Report and now reposted at Salon.com. That's because Florida eliminated the "duty to retreat" requirement for self defense that played a role in Hoeft-Edenfield's conviction. Unlike California, Florida and 29 other states now have "stand your ground" laws that allow people to "meet force with force" anywhere they have a “legal right to be."
The essay is pegged to the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling in McDonald v. City of Chicago, reaffirming gun ownership as a Constitutional right. Although that case did not pertain to self defense, legal analysts say it may ultimately help to "reshape the boundaries of the kind of force individuals can use to defend themselves," Seville notes.
Race, class, and social status in self defense claims
My local news is reporting on a bizarre rally in the overwhelmingly white San Francisco suburb of Walnut Creek. The protesters were there to support Johannes Mehserle, the transit cop who shot African American train passenger Oscar Grant to death in Oakland, California. Yes, that's right. To support the maligned killer. You will recall that Mehserle was convicted of only involuntary manslaughter, based on his claim that he had meant to fire his taser. (He is currently awaiting sentencing.) Counter-protesters lay face down in the street with their hands behind their backs to show Grant's position when he was shot in the back of the head. It reminded me of the quip going around Twitter just after the verdict highlighting race and relative social rank as factors in jury verdicts: "Hey, if Oscar Grant had shot a cop in the back, do you think he could have gotten off by saying, 'Oops, I thought I was texting on my cell phone'?"
One of my goals in the reader participation exercise was to showcase how implicit values and relative social status influence contested claims of self defense. Thus, I was intrigued by Seville's discussion of race and class in self defense claims. This was the focus of Justice Clarence Thomas's concurring opinion in the McDonald case. Thomas pointed out the importance of firearm ownership for black citizens in the South in the post-Reconstruction era, during which African Americans were "tortured and killed for a wide array of alleged crimes, without even the slightest hint of due process."
Massad Ayoob, a police captain and firearms trainer in New Hampshire, also acknowledged the role of race, class, and other circumstances in the outcomes self-defense claims:
He pointed to the case of Ronnie Barlow, a young black man from Arizona who was in 1990 convicted of second-degree murder for what he said was a self-defense shooting. He said he was attacked by 21-year-old Robert Lockwood, a white man with a long criminal history and the son of a local judge, but the jury didn’t buy it. The judge, however, saw it differently and reduced the jury verdict to manslaughter. Two years later, Barlow was released."What would the "reasonable person" have done?
Subtle social and moral values quickly slip into jury deliberations because of the supposedly objective question of what the "reasonable person" would have done in the defendant's situation. Writes Seville:
The "reasonable man" -- or, now, "reasonable person" -- doctrine is the cornerstone of a self-defense case, explains Cynthia Lee, a law professor at George Washington University. Juries must decide if the sequence of events was reasonable not only in the defendant’s mind but also from an outside perspective.Battered person’s syndrome
"The reasonableness requirement is imposed to lend an air of objectivity to the defense," says Lee, the author of Murder and the Reasonable Man, a study of how beliefs and social norms play out in criminal cases, including self-defense trials. "The problem is of course that reasonableness is in the eye of the beholder," she says. "What’s reasonable to one person is not reasonable to another.”
Seville goes on to discuss the role of the battered women's defense in broadening conceptions of self defense in the courtroom:
In recent years, the courts and state legislatures have opened up more room for questions about what constitutes an "imminent" threat and whether a reasonable person must try to flee before using force.Related blog posts:
Increased legal acceptance of the "battered person’s syndrome" in the early 1990s allowed juries to hear how an abused person -- often, a woman -- might feel she had no choice but to kill to save her life. This challenged the long-standing notion that the threat to one's life had to be imminent. A battered person may, some believe, kill because the abuse is perceived to be life-threatening even if it isn't happening right then.
Like "stand your ground laws," battered-person defenses show that societal views can come into play in the long-standing right to self-defense, but nothing may indicate that better than the juries themselves.
Self-defense cases offer juries a lot of leeway to decide what they believe is reasonable and just, regardless of the law. "What the law on the books requires and what happens in action may be two different things,” Lee says. "Prosecutors, cops, jury members. We’re all people -- and stereotypes about certain groups affect us all."
The McDonald decision means that courts throughout the country will grapple for years with interpretations of the Second Amendment and the right of self-defense. But when the cases make it in to court, justice may depend less on the letter of state law than on the state of mind of the 12 people seated in that jury box.
- Killing and culpability: A reader participation exercise (April 14, 2010)
- "Killing and culpability" sentences handed down (June 16, 2010)