America needs to know Roderick Scott. Thanks to a Glenn Reynolds post, I ran across the 2009 story of a man acquitted of manslaughter charges after he saw three teenagers appearing to break into his car. He walked outside (late at night) carrying a handgun to confront the kids. He ordered the kids to freeze, but — according to his testimony — one of the kids charged towards him saying that he was going to “get” Scott. Scott shot the teenager twice. The news reports I’ve reviewed don’t indicate that the teenager was armed, but do state that he had alcohol and drugs in his system. Unlike in the Zimmerman trial, there were other direct witnesses to the incident, and one of them claimed that Scott fired his weapon when the victim was simply standing still, hands in the air.
After two days of deliberations, the jury found Roderick Scott not guilty.
The catch? Roderick Scott is a black adult (a pretty big guy, judging by his picture); the victim was a white teenager.
For those in anguish about the alleged inherent racism of our system of justice, about the idea that basic principles of self-defense as applied in court are nothing but a “hunting license” against young black teens, the Roderick Scott case should be a comfort. Our self-defense laws are not constructed to kill minorities but to protect simple moral principles that resolve doubts in favor of those who don’t initiate violence, and American juries are more than capable of looking past race to apply the law to the facts of a case.
If Scott had not testified that the teenager rushed him, Scott would be in jail. Similarly, if George Zimmerman’s defense team had not presented compelling evidence that Trayvon Martin had injured him and was beating him while Zimerman was prone on his back, Zimmerman would be in jail. It’s really that simple.
I say this as no fan of George Zimmerman. I think Zimmerman behaved foolishly. Looking at the situation from Trayvon Martin’s perspective, he was being followed first by vehicle then by foot — after dark — by a strange man who is neither law enforcement nor obviously a member of a uniformed security force. That’s unsettling at best, terrifying at worst — and leaves Martin with few good options. Should he presume Zimmerman’s good will and approach him for conversation? Should he keep his head down and walk as quickly as possible home? Should he try to hide? Should he run? Or should he take the worst of the series of bad options and turn and fight — even before Zimmerman makes an overtly threatening move? Some courses of action were safer than others, but all carried a degree of risk.
Zimmerman put Trayvon Martin in a difficult situation, and the fact there was strong evidence that Martin took the worst possible course of action — attacking Zimmerman — doesn’t vindicate Zimmerman’s foolishness. There is not one single concealed carry permit holder in the United States who should look to George Zimmerman as a model of proper conduct.
But just as Zimmerman’s foolishness doesn’t make him a hero, his case doesn’t provide us with any justification for jailing the Roderick Scotts of the world. Nor does it provide the justification for repealing laws that protect black Americans as much as they protect white Americans:
Black Floridians have made about a third of the state’s total “Stand Your Ground” claims in homicide cases, a rate nearly double the black percentage of Florida’s population. The majority of those claims have been successful, a success rate that exceeds that for Florida whites.
I have long been just as suspicious of the rush to exonerate George Zimmerman as I have been of the rush to convict. Up until the trial itself I thought the prosecution might come forward with compelling evidence that George Zimmerman initiated the violence. It did not. Not even close. But regardless of the outcome of the Zimmerman trial, we should not waiver in the conviction that our laws do not protect aggressors and that our private and public spaces belong to the law-abiding. In other words, the message is simple: If you attack another person, the victim is under no obligation to run away.
That’s a legal principle — and cultural norm – worth defending.