US Commission on Civil Rights to review 'stand your ground' laws

Will gather data from states, interview prosecutors and police; Florida task force will hold hearings as well

By Yamiche Alcindor

WASHINGTON — Federal and state officials are taking a closer look at stand-your-ground laws following the national uproar over the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is investigating how race affects the enforcement of stand-your-ground laws across the nation.

"We need to make sure claims of justifiable homicide are not being granted or denied because of the color of someone's skin," said Michael Yaki, a member of the Commission on Civil Rights.

The commission plans to gather data from states with stand-your-ground laws and interview prosecutors and police, Yaki said. At least 21 states have a variation of the law.

On Tuesday, a task force convened by Florida's governor will hold its first public hearing on the stand-your-ground law in that state.

Zimmerman, 28, a white Hispanic, is charged with shooting Trayvon, an unarmed black 17-year-old, in Sanford on Feb. 26. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, says he shot Trayvon in self-defense.

Police initially did not charge him, citing Florida's stand-your-ground law, which says someone does not have to retreat in the face of a threat and can use deadly force if fearing death or serious harm.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, formed the Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection to take public testimony and review the state's law.

Republican State Rep. Dennis Baxley, who sponsored Florida's law, is on the task force. He said it should proceed cautiously. "A lot of the data still show that it has been very effective in protecting people from harm and acts of violence," he said.

John Roman, a fellow with the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, analyzed homicides in the U.S. from 2005 to 2009. He found that they were twice as likely to be ruled justifiable in stand-your-ground states and that in many incidents police can't arrest shooters and question them in detail.

He pointed out that, according to the FBI, 34% of cases involving a white shooter killing a black person were deemed justifiable. When the shooter was black and the victim was white, the homicide was ruled justifiable 3.3% of the time.

"The numbers are so different, it's absolutely worth doing a study to figure this out," Roman said.

Trayvon's parents and members of the Second Chance on Shoot First campaign, a coalition that includes New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the NAACP and the National Urban League, will hold a rally at the first meeting of Scott's task force Tuesday. The group plans to present a petition signed online by 340,000 people asking for the change or repeal of Florida's stand-your-ground law. It is making similar pushes in Indiana, Kansas and Michigan. 

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