Self defense

Every now and then, the debate over self defense starts up. In America we got fired up over the Trayvon Martin vs George Zimmerman case,

The Zimmerman/Martin case had two great issues that kept it in the news (because dozens of people in a country of 300 million are shot everyday). First, the two were of different races, and racial tensions are always headline grabbers. Second, there were no surviving witnesses other than the shooter, so the news media didn’t have to do the job of reporting reality, they were free to speculate.

In the end, a mixed race jury heard all the evidence and found George Zimmerman not guilty by reason of self defense. There are a number of important points there. The jury heard the evidence of Zimmerman’s activities that night. The fact that he has since proven himself to be a wanker had no bearing on his actions with Trayvon. The “stand your ground” law, which provides that you do not need to run away but may instead use deadly force to repel an attack has in fact been used successfully by black Floridians, disproportionately to the occurrences. The jury was made up entirely of women, who one would instinctively believe to be sympathetic to the victim, yet they saw enough evidence to believe that Zimmerman, who was advised by police to stay in his car, was indeed attacked.

Following this case, there was an uproar over another Florida case in which a woman was sentenced to twenty years in prison and hadn’t actually injured anyone. In this case, the “victim” was arguing with his wife, and said “If I can’t have you nobody can”. She pushed past him, possibly negating the seriousness of his threat, but when she got to her car she had forgotten her keys. Rather than continuing her escape on foot, she took a handgun and returned to the house, where she fired two “warning shots” in the direction of her husband and children. Under Florida law she was charged with assault with a firearm, which carries a mandatory twenty year sentence. The prosecutor offered her a plea deal in which she would serve three years, but she insisted she had done nothing wrong. The jury required twelve minutes to determine that she had indeed done something wrong, and the judge had no choice but to sentence her to spend twenty years in prison.

I don’t know if her attorney had counseled her to reject the plea deal, or if it was her idea. It is my opinion that prison is for people who cannot acknowledge their mistakes, and insisting she had done nothing wrong was a mistake worth seventeen years. A cynical person would say that failing to shoot her husband to death, leaving no contradicting witnesses, was her twenty year mistake. The prosecutor had offered the idea that firing towards her children was a three year mistake.

In a more recent case, every element of a self defense shooting with a racial component took place, but it has flown beneath the radar for the most part. possibly because the shooter has acknowledged his error.

Jonathan A. Ferrell, a former college football star, was driving home at 0230 when he had a serious one car accident. No need to jump to conclusions here, although this is the time of day that most accidents take place as the bars empty, Jonathan was working two jobs and may have been coming home after a long day. Apparently he didn’t have a cell phone, or perhaps the area was rural enough to have no signal. He walked a half mile to a neighborhood and started knocking on doors for help.

This is where I suggest that you give the benefit of doubt to the homeowner. It’s 0230, you’re asleep. Someone is “knocking” on your door, loud enough to wake you. At 0230 everyone is the same color, and this is a big man (ex football player), injured and probably a little frantic. He’s probably banging pretty loudly, and you’re a little scared. You dial 911.

The police arrive. Happy to see help arrive Jonathon runs towards them. They shout “stop”, but he either doesn’t hear them (over the sirens) or it never occurred to him that he was seen as a danger. Or maybe he was intoxicated and his judgement was flawed. The police attempt to tase him, but for some reason fail. Could have been equipment failure or a miss. Jonathon continues to approach.

Officer Randall Kerrick, a twenty seven year old who had only been on the force for two years, felt threatened, possibly because he believed Jonathan had not responded to being tased, or because Jonathan was a big man who continued to advance on armed officers after being ordered to stop, Kerrick opened fire. Kerrick emptied his pistol, either because he failed to stop Jonathan (of the twelve rounds fired, two missed entirely) or out of panic. It is not unusual for a frightened person to empty their weapon, often continuing to pull the trigger on an empty pistol aimed at a dead target.

Kerrick was charged with Manslaughter later in the day. He surrendered to authorities immediately, and the (black) Chief of police stated that Kerrick  “was shaken up, he’s devastated”. Jonathan’s mother has said she forgives Kerrick but hopes he is removed from the police department. Everyone seems to be handling the tragedy rationally, with the exception of the NAACP.

Defining what is and what is not self defense is not just an American problem. Tony Martin may be the most famous case, but self defense is essentially illegal in the UK. Recently in Nice, France, a sixty seven year old man was beaten and robbed with a shotgun. When he shot at the robbers, killing one, he was charged with murder. He was ineligible for Manslaughter, because the thieves had gotten away. Like when you’re playing tag, and touch home base, they were “free”. The brother of the slain thug said “After all, the old man had insurance”.

The value of self defense can only be judged by the survivor, I worked with a Detective Sargent for several years who heartily endorsed the practice of “Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six”.


4 comments on “Self defense

  1. tpc2001 says:

    Got to love Florida–shoot and miss gets you 20 years, but shoot to kill and you’ll off provided no one was looking.


  2. Arguably, defense is the foundation of society – and legal definitions of self defense should be no different.


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