CHARLIE MITCHELL: Police don’t define self-defense; legislatures do

By Charlie Mitchell

The question is not if a killing similar to the death of Trayvon Martin will occur in Mississippi. A few already have, but without the explosive national attention.
The core facts are not in dispute. Trayvon, 17, was shot by self-appointed neighborhood patrolman George Zimmerman. Beyond that, information and misinformation has spiraled from Sanford, Fla., to the White House and beyond.
Turn on CNN and there’s Piers Morgan having a serious talk with Chaka Khan, previously better known for her “Queen of Funk” activities than her expertise on social pathologies. Turn on the radio and there’s the smarmy Bill O’Reilly wondering aloud why the “liberal media” doesn’t cover black-on-black crime with equal zeal. And everywhere are the same old profiteers and exploiters of racial injustice, raising their voices and seeking donations.
Truth is, only two people know for sure what happened in the minutes and moments before the shooting and one of them – Trayvon – is dead. That single fact matters – and matters a lot – under Florida’s 2003 “Stand Your Ground” statute and under Mississippi’s “Castle Doctrine,” enacted in 2006.
Police and prosecutors don’t write the law. They apply the law as written.
Mississippi Section 97-3-15 has always allowed killing another to save one’s own life. Expanded six years ago, it now says a killer may also use deadly force to prevent “any felony upon him, or upon or in any dwelling, in any occupied vehicle, in any place of business, in any place of employment or in the immediate premises thereof in which such person shall be.”
The 2006 revisions changed generations of the legal standard under which deadly force could be used from “in defense of life only” to “in defense of property.”
From the time the state was founded until six years ago, shooting a person who was stealing your wallet or purse or car was not “justifiable” and a person who killed another under such circumstances could be sent to prison. Many were.
But the revised Mississippi statute goes on. It speaks directly to prosecutors: “A person who uses defensive force shall be presumed to have reasonably feared imminent death or great bodily harm, or the commission of a felony upon him or another or upon his dwelling, or against a vehicle which he was occupying, or against his business or place of employment … (emphasis added).”
This presumption means it’s up to the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman, if the case occurred in Mississippi, was not afraid.
How would you do that?
Further, “A person who is not the initial aggressor and is not engaged in unlawful activity shall have no duty to retreat before using deadly force (emphasis added) if the person is in a place where the person has a right to be, and no finder of fact (jury) shall be permitted to consider the person’s failure to retreat as evidence that the person’s use of force was unnecessary, excessive or unreasonable.”
Let’s say two tourists are lost in downtown Jackson. One taps on the window of a driver stopped at a traffic light to ask for directions. Instead, the tourist is blown away.
When police arrive, the driver says he thought it was a carjacking. The surviving tourist tells what really happened. If the case is prosecuted, which is unlikely, the district attorney will have to convince the jury the driver did not have that fear, which is nigh unto impossible. Also, no one will be allowed to consider that the driver, as an alternative to shooting the tourist, could simply have pressed the gas pedal.
Like it or not, that is the law in Mississippi. Lawmakers in Florida and, later, in Mississippi, who amended and broadened the self-defense laws were not evil or uncaring, nor did they intend to launch vigilante-type justice. They were weary of complaints that too many people, when attacked, were being prosecuted for defending themselves.
Perfection is not something any codebook has achieved, so now there will be deliberations over the definitions, of whether the expansion wording goes too far.
The death of Trayvon Martin has all the elements to feed a media frenzy, so that’s likely to continue. Remember, however, the clear role of police and prosecutors in these situations. The statutes say the word of those who claim self-defense has to be accepted as true. And when those who make the claim are the sole survivors, as in Florida, there’s little room for argument.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail cmitchell43@yahoo.com.