WASHINGTON -- The mother of Trayvon Martin -- the unarmed 17-year-old who was shot to death last year in Florida, sparking a national debate about "stand your ground" laws -- testified Tuesday about the need to amend a law that "does not work."
Speaking just months after George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder charges in her son's February 2012 death in Florida, Sybrina Fulton appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights to ask its members to "seriously take a look" at the 2005 Florida law and similar ones passed in more than a dozen other states since then.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the chairman of the subcommittee, agreed that it was time for the laws "to be carefully reviewed and reconsidered."
"Whatever the motivation behind them, it's clear these laws often go too far in encouraging confrontations that escalate into deadly violence," Durbin said in his opening statement. "They're resulting in unnecessary tragedies and they are diminishing accountability under our justice system."
The hearing sparked a conversation among lawmakers and witnesses about the ambiguity of such laws, the racial implications they might have, and the role of the federal government in considering challenges to them.
The elimination of a potential victim of an attack’s "duty to retreat" by many of the laws was a point of contention, with critics saying the laws emboldened people to escalate a confrontation, rather than requiring them to leave if they could do so safely.
"These laws permit and, quite frankly, encourage individuals to use deadly force even in situations where lesser or no physical force would be appropriate," said Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio), testifying at the hearing. She said the laws foster "a Wild West environment in our communities, where individuals play the role of judge, jury and executioner."
But others, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, said the right of people to stay and "stand their ground" stems from a 1895 Supreme Court decision.
Cruz said the notion that "you're obliged to turn and run rather than to defend yourself is a notion that is contrary to hundreds of years of our jurisprudence and to the rights that protect all of us."
But that language retreats from the common-law duty of retreat and "provides immunity from criminal arrests" when a shooter claims self defense, said Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., a Harvard law professor, citing the Zimmerman case as a key example.
Zimmerman was not initially arrested after Martin's death because he said that he had acted in self-defense. He was arrested and charged with second-degree murder six weeks later after a special prosecutor was appointed to the case.