Young: Look deeper at conceptions about race and self-defense

We must look at the facts, and acknowledge

We must look at the facts, and acknowledge the imperfect progress made toward equal justice. (Credit: Tribune Content Agency / Paul Tong)

As fallout from George Zimmerman's acquittal in the death of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin continues, the anger is fueled partly by the assumption that the case would have turned out very differently with a black shooter and a white victim. For critics of the verdict, it is self-evident that U.S. law does not protect blacks who defend themselves, only whites who kill them. But is there evidence to support this scathing indictment? The facts and figures offer some surprising answers.

Could there have been a white Trayvon Martin? Ask the parents of Christopher Cervini, also 17 when he was killed in Rochester, N.Y., in 2009. The shooter, Roderick Scott, said he saw three boys breaking into a car, went out with his (legal) handgun to stop them, and fired in self-defense after Cervini ran at him yelling a threat. Cervini's family insisted that the teen, who had never been in trouble, was murdered in cold blood. Scott was tried for manslaughter and acquitted. He is black; Cervini was white.

New York has seen other controversial cases in which African-American men successfully claimed self-defense. In 1987, a racially mixed Brooklyn jury acquitted 19-year-old Andre Nichols, who had fatally shot and robbed a white Catholic priest, Frederick Strianese; Nichols said Strianese had solicited sex and was trying to assault him.

As proof of pervasive bias, some cite a June 2012 Tampa Bay Times report based on a study of cases involving self-defense claims since 2005, when Florida passed its "stand your ground law": 73 percent of defendants who killed blacks were cleared, compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white person. Yet, since most homicides were between people of the same race, this also suggests black defendants were more likely to win. Indeed, the study found that "black defendants went free 66 percent of the time in fatal cases compared to 61 percent for white defendants." In mixed-race cases, "four of the five blacks who killed a white went free; five of the six whites who killed a black went free."

Of course, one study in one state and a few anecdotes do not prove a national pattern. Critics point to an Urban Institute analysis of FBI statistics for 2005-10 which shows that firearm homicides are far more likely to be ruled justified when the shooter is white and the victim is black than vice versa. But without knowledge of the specific circumstances of these homicides, it's impossible to say how much of the disparity is due to bias.

One Florida case has been widely cited as a contrast to the Zimmerman verdict and a shocking injustice: the case of Marissa Alexander, a black woman said to be serving 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot to scare off her violent ex-husband. But that's not quite what happened. Alexander's "stand your ground" claim was rejected because, after the altercation with then-husband Rico Gray, she went to the garage, returned with a gun and fired a shot that Gray said narrowly missed his head (a claim backed by forensic evidence). Gray was indeed abusive, but Alexander was no innocent; she also assaulted him while out on bail for the shooting. Her 20-year sentence, required by a mandatory minimum for firearm offenses, was a travesty; her conviction was not.

President Barack Obama was right when he said that the passions over Martin's death and Zimmerman's acquittal must be seen in the context of a painful history of racism -- racism that, just over half a century ago, often did allow whites to kill blacks with impunity -- and of ongoing tensions over race, crime and profiling. But to address these issues, we must look at the facts, and acknowledge the imperfect progress made toward equal justice.