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

Last updated on February 8th, 2013 at 12:22 am

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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

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