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July 17, 2013

AG criticizes stand-your-ground laws

ORLANDO, Fla. — Stand-your-ground laws that allow a person who believes he is in danger to use deadly force in self-defense “sow dangerous conflict” and need to be reassessed, Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday in assailing the statutes that exist in many states.

Holder said he was concerned about the Trayvon Martin slaying case in which Florida’s stand-your-ground law played a part.

But he said, “Separate and apart from the case that has drawn the nation’s attention, it’s time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods.”

George Zimmerman was acquitted over the weekend of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in Martin’s 2012 death in Sanford, Fla. Holder said the Justice Department has an open investigation into what he called Monday the “tragic, unnecessary shooting death” of the unarmed Miami 17-year-old.

He urged the nation then to speak honestly about complicated and emotionally charged issues. A day later, he seemed to shift away from the specific case to one of those issues — the debate over stand-your-ground.

“There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if — and the ‘if’ is important — no safe retreat is available,” Holder told the NAACP.

The country must take a hard look at laws that contribute to “more violence than they prevent,” Holder said during a speech before an NAACP convention in Orlando, about 20 miles from the courthouse where Zimmerman was cleared of the charges three days earlier. Such laws “try to fix something that was never broken,” he said.

Martin’s shooting shone a light on Florida’s stand-your-ground and similar laws around the nation. Most say a person has no duty to retreat if he is attacked in a place he has a right to be and can meet force with force if he fears death or great bodily harm.

Sanford’s police chief cited the law as his reason for not initially arresting Zimmerman in February 2012. Zimmerman told police Martin was beating him up during the confrontation and that he feared he would be killed.

Though stand-your-ground was never raised during trial, Judge Debra Nelson included a provision about the law in the instructions that allowed jurors to consider it as a legitimate defense.

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