I'm not the most compassionate person, and the death of Trayvon Martin hasn't had the emotional impact on me as it has had on others. However, I am much more disturbed by the possibility that it represents a larger trend, and that the well-publicized acquittal of shooter George Zimmerman may exacerbate the trend.
It's much easier to know something is deeply wrong with the case than to pinpoint exactly where it went wrong. I've heard some people argue that the jury was biased. Other people have argued that it was not an error in the verdict, but a fucked up system within which it was the correct verdict.
Initially I thought that there might be two unrelated injustices. One injustice to kill Martin, and another injustice to acquit Zimmerman. On the one hand, you have people who immediately suspect any black kid in their neighborhood, and feel it's appropriate to stalk them with a gun. On the other hand, you have a court system which seems to give too much of an advantage to self-defense claims. Isn't that just like life, to have such a high density of injustices that they're practically bumping into each other?
However, the evidence simply does not bear out my idea of two unrelated injustices.
See that? That's a hundred Zimmermans right there. Homicides where a white person shoots a black victim are much more likely to be ruled as justified by self-defense. The ratio is even greater in states with SYG ("Stand Your Ground") laws. The number of white-on-black homicides ruled to be justified is 236 (using data from 2005 to 2010). So when I say that's a hundred Zimmermans, it's no exaggeration, it's an understatement.
Just imagine these same prejudices and disparities flowing not just through homicide trials, but through every aspect of life.
My understanding is that in states without SYG, people have a duty to retreat before resorting to self-defense. In states with SYG, people may use self-defense in certain cases even if they have the opportunity to retreat. In an earlier report of the study, it shows that the primary effect of SYG laws is to increase the homicide rate by 8% (but Wikipedia says there are a few disagreements on this figure).
A simple hypothesis is that jurors are biased towards white shooters of black victims, and that SYG laws insert a little more subjectivity into the the trial, giving jurors more opportunity to be affected by their biases. I also thought that the data would be confounded by the fact that there is a preponderance of SYG states in the South; however, the study authors seem to have considered this already.
In the trial of Zimmerman, SYG wasn't used by the defense. Evidence showed that Zimmerman pursued, so he wasn't covered under Florida's SYG. Therefore, Zimmerman's acquittal doesn't necessarily reflect the injustice of SYG per se, but rather reflects the injustice that appears even in states without SYG.
The data, though preliminary, is sufficient to convince me. Stand Your Ground increases violence AND it has disparate impact on black people. However, repealing Stand Your Ground will still leave more than half of the problem, and may not even have changed the individual case of Martin and Zimmerman. More is needed, but it's not clear what. Maybe neighborhood watch volunteers shouldn't be allowed to carry guns? Maybe we need to change the attitudes of the typical juror?