Thursday, July 18, 2013

A hundred Zimmermans

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?


Ben P said...

Maybe there isn't as much injustice as you think. Maybe there is a higher rate of self defense shootings by whites against blacks because of the disproportionately higher rate of violent crimes committed by black.

Larry, The Barefoot Bum said...

First, "maybe" is not very persuasive. Maybe orbital mind control lasers, shape-shifting lizard people, the Illuminati, etc.

More importantly, suppose there really were a disproportionately higher rate of violent crimes committed by black people. That would simply move the question around: why would there a disproportionately higher rate of violent crime?

Could it it perhaps be because for centuries, black people have, with rare exceptions, been systematically denied meaningful economic and social participation at all but the most menial and subservient levels?

Nah. Couldn't be that. That would require white people to take actual responsibility, and that's less plausible than shape-shifting lizard people.

Ben P said...

There is a disproportionately higher violent crime rate in the black community. Could it be perhaps because we excuse present behavior because of past injustices?

miller said...

To fully explain the trend, black people would have to commit five or six times as many violent crimes (and we must confine to crimes with white victims). Your citation suggests a factor of two or three. That makes it sound like there is a combination of two injustices: economic oppression leading to higher crime rates, and a biased legal system.

miller said...

"Could it be perhaps because we excuse present behavior because of past injustices?" Seems especially implausible since we were just discussing disproportionately higher rates of arrests and convictions of black people.

Larry, The Barefoot Bum said...

Could it be perhaps because we excuse present behavior because of past injustices?

A more neutral, non-question-begging form of this question would be, do we differentially justify specific behaviors on the basis of past history? And, of course, we routinely do so. Our entire punitive criminal justice system justifies acts, such as imprisonment, denial of constitutional rights, and execution) on the basis of past history of legally proscribed acts; without this history, we would consider these punishments manifestly unjust. This is only the most obvious example; we so frequently differentially justify actions on the basis of history that its use cannot be considered at all exceptional.