April 16, 2012

“Stand your Ground” Laws Validate Stories of Lethal Force, Silence Others

Spirit of Justice, cropped from photograph: Two sculptures "Spirit of Justice," and "Majesty of Justice," Great Hall, 2nd floor, Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.

Yale Law School professor Adam Cohen, advocating the repeal of the Stand Your Ground law that permitted George Zimmerman to claim he killed Trayvon Martin in self defense, wrote in Time Magazine last week that:

If Zimmerman does go to trial, there will no doubt be enormous debates over his guilt or innocence. It is difficult to sort out motives and right and wrong in cases of this sort — especially when one of the critical witnesses, young Mr. Martin, cannot testify about what happened.

There is a direct link between Stand Your Ground laws, which permit those with access to deadly force to use it if they feel threatened, and Martin’s inability to tell his story.

Spirit of JusticeSpirit of Justice, cropped from photograph: Two sculptures "Spirit of Justice," and "Majesty of Justice," Great Hall, 2nd floor, Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.

It is a truism when talking about narrative and public life to assert that some stories are sanctioned, and others silenced. Sometimes it is difficult to identify the mechanism through which such sanction takes place, because it lies in community tradition or social discourse.  Stand Your Ground laws press into relief how law can shape which accounts will be viewed as legitimate before they are evaluated by judges and juries. Under the Stand your Ground premise, might makes right. Your ability to lethally harm someone is converted into the credible motivation for doing so, while the victim of a killing is doubly silenced, in court and in life.

When I consider the reported details of the case in the press–the accounts of Zimmerman and his father, the 911 call transcripts,  the reports of the neighbors and Martin’s girlfriend, who overheard the encounter by cell phone,  I hear a story of two young men who each experienced sensations of threat and fear in the presence of the other.  But the law said that if one of them had the ability and willingness to lethally harm the other, then his experience of being in need of self-defense was more legitimate than that of the other.

The campaign that brought Martin’s story to the surface, and provoked Zimmerman’s arrest, recalls the 1989 commentary on stories and the law by Kim Lane Scheppele, the Director of Princeton’s Program in Law and Public Affairs. Introducing a special edition of the Michigan Law Review on legal storytelling, which has since become an influential source for scholars of narrative and the law,  Scheppele wrote that;

The varying descriptions composed by people with varied experiences reveal that “perceptual fault lines” run through apparently stable communities that appear to have agreed on basic institutions and structures and on general governing rules. Consent comes apart in battles of description. Consent comes apart over whose stories to tell. And legal earthquakes are always just about to happen when there are serious perceptual fault lines that run through the legal construction of facts.

Scheppele aptly describes both the Florida community in which Martin and Zimmerman’s encounter took place and the national community.  Americans do largely agree on basic governing rules about community order and the moral imperative against murder. But differences over what constitutes murder, and whether the experience of threat can be abstracted in law, have frayed that consent.   The subtext of this case, if it goes to trial, will be a profound questioning of what constitutes a legally compelling story of self-defense.

The world of criminal law produces stark examples of how a system of rules designed precisely to guarantee equal opportunities to have one’s story heard instead privileges certain ways of telling, and some stories over others.

The same lessons may be found in any system that has rules–international politics, private corporations, public institutions, even families.  Resolving certain deep conflicts requires reviewing the rules and customs  that validate some narratives and exclude others, so that previously silenced evidence or experiences can be told.

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