Megan Kanka, seven years old, was raped and murdered on July 29, 1994, by a next-door neighbor, who unbeknownst to anyone in her suburban New Jersey neighborhood had two previous convictions for sexually assaulting young girls. Just one month later, the New Jersey legislature passed a law requiring convicted sex offenders to register with a state database and making that information available to the public.
Washington State passed the first such law four years earlier, but the measures are now universally known as “Megan’s Laws” and have been enacted in various forms by Congress and by legislatures in every state. One can question the wisdom or the effectiveness of the laws, but they are firmly established as a lasting legacy to an innocent victim of a senseless crime an attempt to show that Megan Kanka did not die in vain.
Trayvon Martin, an innocent victim of what is now officially alleged to be a senseless crime, deserves no less. Even as state attorney Angela Corey and her team of prosecutors prepare to try George Zimmerman on a charge of second-degree murder, legislators in the 20 or more states that passed so-called “Stand Your Ground Laws” in the past seven years should begin the task of rewriting or repealing those measures so that Trayvon Martin, in some sense, not have died in vain.
Florida has the dubious honor of having passed the first of these laws expanding the right of self-defense to include the use of deadly force in public settings under specified circumstances and eliminating any duty to retreat if possible to avoid doing so. The Florida legislature approved the measure in April 2005 at the strong urging of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and in the face of opposition from law enforcement in the state. Miami Police Chief John Timoney called the bill unnecessary and dangerous and presciently warned according to the New York Times’s account that “many people, including children, could become innocent victims” (emphasis added).
With the NRA driving them, similar laws were passed in more than a dozen other states by the end of the 2006 legislative season even as Florida prosecutors were finding the state’s version to be an impediment to convictions in killings of dubious self-defense. Today, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys counts 30 states in all that have liberalized the rules of self-defense since 2005. Some, but not all, of those laws have been enacted after full public debate. As one example, Wisconsin’s measure was enacted with little public attention after a stealth letter-writing campaign by the state’s NRA affiliate, according to a recent account in the New York Times.
The prosecutors’ group points to data from the FBI that suggest the laws may have contributed to a sharp increase in the number of homicides by private citizens deemed to be “justified,” not only in Florida but also nationwide. The FBI counted 192 “justifiable” private citizen homicides in 2005 and 278 in 2010 a 45 percent increase in just five years. In Florida itself, the number has tripled, according to the state’s Department of Law Enforcement, from an average of 12 per year before 2005 to 36 per year since.
Florida’s law may or may not prove determinative in the case against Zimmerman, the hyperactive neighborhood watch coordinator now in custody after being charged with second-degree murder on April 11, nearly seven weeks after the Feb. 26 killing. Zimmerman shot and killed Martin after he pursued the African American teenager on the unfounded suspicion that Martin was “up to no good” in the gated community that Zimmerman had undertaken to patrol. But the law at least played a part in the decision by Sanford authorities not to arrest Zimmerman that night even though the chief investigator said Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense was not to be believed.
From all that appears, the case is now in good hands in Florida’s justice system. Corey was brought in from Jacksonville as special prosecutor after state’s attorney Norm Wolfinger recused himself. Corey made an impressive appearance in the nationally televised announcement of the charges against Zimmerman. The affidavit backing up the charge, released the next day, provides a succinct statement of the evidence supporting the accusation. The defendant himself is now being represented, pro bono, by a well regarded Florida attorney, Mark O’Mara. Trayvon’s parents and many of those who have clamored for an arrest are now satisfied that the case is in the courts.
The groundswell of indignation at the killing could now be turned to the broader purpose of restoring the law of self-defense to the sensible balance that had obtained for most of U.S. history until the NRA-led drive of the past decade. Anglo-American law had long recognized the so-called “Castle Doctrine” that permits the use of force, even deadly force, in self-defense within one’s home. Expanding that doctrine to public settings has made the streets not safer, but less safe, according to law enforcement officials.
The NRA has been lying low since the Martin killing, but former NRA president Marion Hammer, a Floridian who played a key role in enactment of the “Stand Your Ground Law,” insists there is no need to change it. If Trayvon Martin were alive today, he might have a different opinion.