Stand Your Ground’s Hideous Double Standard of Prosecuting African-Americans

The application of a different principle for a similar situation or different people in the same situation is generally regarded as a double standard. The tragic murder of Trayvon Martin has engendered questions that if the roles had been reversed and Martin, an African American teenager, had shot and killed George Zimmerman, would he have been immediately arrested and charged with murder. Whether or not race played a role in the incident may never be determined, but there is a case in Georgia in which the stand your ground law did not protect an African American man who shot and killed a white man on his own property. The case is the ultimate example of applying a different principle for a similar situation based on race.

Advocates of the stand your ground law and most conservatives insist that race had no relevance in law enforcement’s failure to immediately arrest George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin. A public outcry and subsequent investigation resulted in Zimmerman’s arrest, and his legal defense is that he acted in self-defense out of fear of great bodily harm or death at the empty hands of Trayvon Martin. Georgia’s stand your ground law allows citizens to use deadly force “if they reasonably believe force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury,” and their Castle Doctrine law justifies the use of deadly force to defend one’s home. In the Trayvon Martin case, Zimmerman was not defending his home and was not in jeopardy of great bodily harm from an unarmed teenager, but John McNeil of Georgia, an African American man was at his home and defended himself from great bodily harm and is in prison for the rest of his life.

In early 2005, McNeil hired Brian Epp’s construction company to build a new home and after many heated confrontations with Epp decided to end the increasingly threatening business relationship. Epp and the McNeil’s agreed that the contractor would finish the work within ten days and then stay away from the property. Epp did not keep the agreement and in December of 2005, McNeil’s 15-year-old son called his father and told him an unrecognizable man was “lurking in the backyard,” and after the son told the man to leave, Epp pulled out a knife, pointed at the teen’s face and said,  ”why don’t you make me leave?” Mr. McNeil was still on the phone and recognized Epp’s voice and told his son to go inside and wait while he called 911 to report the incident. McNeil arrived home and Epp went to his truck to get something he concealed in his pants and came at him prompting McNeil to grab a gun and fire it at the ground insisting that Epp stop his advance. Epp continued approaching McNeil “really fast” while reaching for his knife and a shot in the head stopped Epp.

A neighbor corroborated Mr. McNeal’s story about his deadly encounter with Epp and police initially determined the shooting was a case of self-defense and did not charge him. A year later the district attorney decided to prosecute Mr. McNeil after a rash of letters and emails demanded the prosecutor investigate and charge McNeil with murder. Most of the letters were written anonymously and one was from Epp’s widow.

It was not Epp’s first case of threatening homeowners. In 2004 a white couple, David Samson and Libby Jones testified they carried a gun around Epp as a precaution because of his threatening behavior. Jones testified that Epp nearly struck her during a meeting after she expressed dissatisfaction with his work and their lawyer sent a letter to Epp warning him to stay away from their home. Mr. Samson testified that Epp would park across the street from their home and that “it got to the point where my wife and I were in total fear of this man.”

The North Carolina NAACP State Conference president, Rev. William Barber, argued that “the NRA would be screaming about the injustice of his conviction if John had been white and shot a black assailant that came at him on his property armed with a knife,” and he has a valid point. There has been an outpouring of support from gun rights activists for George Zimmerman, and it explains the “history and legacy of discriminatory application of the law” according to Reverend Barber who is firmly against stand your ground laws because “they give cover to those who may engage in racial profiling and racialized violence.” In Mr. McNeil’s case, a federal lawsuit is challenging Georgia’s stand your ground law because of the double standard in not applying it equally to African Americans, and civil rights activist Markel Hutchins accused courts of accepting a victim’s race “as evidence to establish the reasonableness of an individual’s fear in cases of justifiable homicide.”

There is a stark contrast in the treatment of George Zimmerman and John McNeil’s use of the stand your ground defense because Zimmerman was afforded the benefit of his race despite Trayvon Martin being unarmed. Whether or not Zimmerman racially profiled Martin is a decision for the courts, but there is the appearance of a double standard that cannot be denied in how long it took to charge Zimmerman. Instead of addressing, or even considering the issue of race, conservatives and the NRA have dismissed it out-of-hand as a canard from the left even though there are few miscarriages of justice when white people are involved in killing African Americans.

Stand your ground laws are meant to give legal cover for citizens to protect their lives on their own property, and if a person is legitimately in fear of their life, one might justify the use of deadly force as a last resort. John McNeil is spending the rest of his life in prison because he did use deadly force to protect his own life on his own property, but all appearances inform that George Zimmerman may be acquitted because there is no way to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he did not fear for his life and was therefore justified in murdering Trayvon Martin. Apparently, stand your ground and Castle Doctrine laws do establish reasonableness for justifiable homicide, but only if the victim is African American and it leaves one to ponder; how many other African Americans are spending the rest of their lives in prison because the stand your ground laws are not applied equally?

America desperately needs a conversation on racial bigotry and how to expose it. It is hypocritical that the NRA, conservative groups, and ALEC have not come to Mr. McNeil’s aid because he is the poster child for their beloved stand your ground law, but Mr. McNeil made the mistake of being African American while defending his life on his own property. When critics ask what would have happened if the roles were reversed in the Trayvon Martin case, they only need to look to Georgia to understand that the double standard they assume would apply is alive and well in the person of John McNeil, and he is living testament that stand your ground laws fail to give legal cover to protect one’s life if they are African American.

Image: AP images

18 Replies to “Stand Your Ground’s Hideous Double Standard of Prosecuting African-Americans”

  1. It’s obvious that race did indeed play a role in George Zimmerman’s pursuit and eventual murder of Trayvon Martin. It’s also obvious that race played a huge role in the conviction of John McNeil, who did have a valid case of self-defense under SYG. All the people who have been defending Zimmerman and demonizing Trayvon need to be aware of how race determines who is ultimately permitted to use SYG as a defense.

  2. The case was appealed and lost. Only one justice voted to overturn the conviction. There is a lawsuit challenging Georgia’s stand your ground law based on the discriminatory application of the law because of the McNeil case. This is America though, and the racists are in charge.

  3. McNeil was clearly in fear for his life by a man with a history of intimidation. This is a tragedy. Zimmerman on the other hand had the history of being overzealous and created the circumstance that resulted in the death of Martin. He is not guilty of murder but probably some sort of man salughter through his irresponsible actions. In the McNeil case this man came to his home and created his own demise with his threats and actions this seems clear.

  4. Much to the ire of gun supporters who hate regulations, as well as the NRA, this is why each state must have their own firearm laws and not a cookie-cutter approach from corporations who create laws for whom they lobby. Yet supporters on the right detest how they would be silenced by regulations and how every person regardless of age should carry. Yet I hear no outcry from the right for John McNeil, and the conservatives here are mum. Lets give a week before we cast any aspersion to the right and see what the conservatives would say. If they are mum, then it’s race. If they support McNeil, then type it here. Prove us wrong.

  5. This is the first I’ve heard of McNeil, and knowing this country I’m not surprised.

    I AM glad that the two topics are starting to be separated. The right to self-defense is different from uneven (and unjust) application of laws. McNeil needs to be set free, and Zimmerman… although he’s not been tried yet, it seems to me that there is sufficient evidence to convict him (at least of manslaughter) IMO, there may even be enough evidence to label it a hate crime, if the reports are correct about what he said.

    I’m also not surprised in the least about the appeal failing. The judicial system has many holes in it… and things like racial disparities is one of them.

  6. Anyone who denies the signficance of race, especially in issues like these, is either delusional or in denial. The SYG law is being reevaluated due to the fact that there is racial disparity in how people who use it are treated, as well as the abuses of it by folks like George Zimmerman. Zimmerman’s racial heritage matters a lot less than the fact that he was profiling Trayvon Martin. The idea that racial or ethnic minorities can’t be racist is utterly ridiculous. I also find it ironic that there are conservative Republicans like former Florida governor Jeb Bush who say that SYG does not apply in George Zimmerman’s case.

  7. Actually, that is based on a misconception.

    Racism is based on power structures (the scientific definition or that which is used by race/ethicity researchers and advocates). Those who have power over other minorities can be racist, but the reverse is not true, because of the flow of power.

    They can have dislike and even hate for the dominant race (and in many cases that’s understandable), but they cannot be racist because they don’t have power. They CAN be racist if another group has less power than they do.

    I disagree strongly about re-evaluating the SYG law, because in cases like ours (Native Americans, and I can argue that we’re the lowest in the ethnic power structure in this country), it protects us from the police, even if it’s differentially applied – it is SUPPOSED to protect everyone but as we see, it hasn’t. That is the failure of the legal system rather than showing a fault in the law.

    Rather than doing away with it, let’s face the real issue… racism, abusive power structures and attitudes in society, and so on, and deal with them. Let’s deal with the bigots in the police, in the courts, and in society in general (which I think would go far to reduce the NEED for the SYG law!!!).

    Otherwise all you’ll do is patch the situation in a temporary manner, and we will continue to be persecuted because of our skin color or heritage.

  8. correction – They CAN be racist if another group has less power than they do and they discriminate or hold prejudice against that group.

  9. Most conservatives do not understand that this could provoke a legal race war. Which of course is what the NRA and Alec want. But think about it whites, you can die as easily as you think you can shoot blacks and get away with it. If this law is contested as being racially motivated, and it can be with the number of whites to blacks being exonerated, you will lose your hate law. Either prosecute it fairly in your state or not at all.

  10. The instances where a racist has more power in a society are about institutional racism, but people who are non-white are also capable of racist attitudes both toward other racial minorities and toward whites as well. I still say that if the SYG stands, it will have to be amended in such a way that loose cannons like Zimmerman can’t invoke it to justify murder, and that people like the black man in Georgia are not penalized when they use it justly. I also want to see police departments like the ones in Sanford and the one in Pearland, Texas, held accountable in the harshest way when they fail to serve and protect citizens because of their color. A racist fool who is a 63-year-old white woman in Pearland ran her car into a go-cart occupied by 2 13-year-old black boys, and the department did nothing. But she is being sued by the mother of one of them.

  11. Actually, if I have an accurate picture, the federal suit *is* a collateral attack.

    There was this old Cracker joke:

    Q. If you cut a Florida cracker brain in half, what have you got?

    A. Two Georgia cracker brains.

  12. I think the problem we’re having is definitions.

    Anyone can be prejudiced and discriminate against groups of people.

    The definition of racism I use is different, but it’s also because about half of my graduate work was directly connected to race and racism issues, and I use that definition I learned (which I couldn’t quote verbatim, but I do remember the points). Racism itself cannot survive without the difference in power between the groups. That’s why Apartheid was racism in action… the white minority had the power. That’s also why we have the structure we have in this country today.

    I admit there is some discussion as to what the word really means. Most of the definitions I know of include the power structures as inherent to racism, but I also recognize that the definition is what is used in academic and race research/advocacy circles.


    I’m not sure how SYG could be tightened up, at least not the version that was put on here recently, without putting people like McNeil in danger. The problem is that the courts are protecting their own… protecting the cops and prosecuting attorneys and so on.

    I tend to agree with Shiva in that they should either apply it fairly. I think we’re seeing the real face of the legal system in some areas (the face I and a lot of minorities are very familiar with)… the racist attitudes that are so strong in some quarters. What Zimmerman did (besides taking the life and future of a young man that from what I read, had a lot of promise), was to bring out the attitudes of the people running the show and also the attitudes of the local law enforcement.

    That’s the sort of thing (cops’ abuse of power) that SYG is supposed to protect us against.

  13. There’s another case that has been prosecuted by the same State Attorney, Angela Corey, who has charged Zimmerman with second degree murder except this one is against a black woman for defending herself against a husband with a known history of violence and abuse. Here’s the link to her story

    If you’re interested, there’s also a link to a petition that is in need of signatures. Thanks for anyone who is willing to help.

    If you read the transcripts from her ex-husband’s deposition, it actually backs up Marissa’s story and he admits lying to the police at the time of the incident.

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