In the wake of controversy surrounding the “stand your ground law” at the center of the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida, the public is now beginning to scrutinize other states such as Georgia that have passed similar laws in recent years.
Just as in Florida, O.C.G.A. § 16-3-23.1 provides that a person acting in self defense “has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and use force…including deadly force.” Interestingly, the number of justified homicides have doubled in Georgia since this statute was passed six years ago.
The average number of Georgia homicides deemed “justified” by courts prior to 2006 was approximately 7 per year according to an analysis by the Associated Press using crime data compiled by the GBI. Since the enactment of the “stand your ground” statute in 2006, the average number of homicides deemed justified have almost doubled to an average of 13 per year. In 2010 alone, there were 22 justified homicides in Georgia.
“Justified” homicides are killings in which no crime is deemed to have been committed if the defendant acted in self-defense or in the defense of others. For decades, justification was a common defense in homicide cases, but citizens in most situations had a duty to retreat from the danger and only use deadly force as a last resort. The statute enacted in 2006 was designed to give citizens the right to use deadly force when they feel threatened with death or serious bodily harm by another even if escaping from the harm was possible.
The wider latitude granted to defendants under the stand your ground laws has come under tremendous scrutiny in Florida since George Zimmerman shot an unarmed Trayvon Martin in Seminole County, Florida in February. Zimmerman has since been charged with second degree murder and his attorneys continue to allege the shooting was justified under Florida law.
Whether the increase in justified homicides in Georgia is due to the changes in the law or other factors is debatable. Some prosecutors believe that Georgia’s law encourages poor decisions, echoing the national debate that has been sparked by Martin’s death in Florida. Others disagree, like Oconee County District Attorney Tim Vaughn who states that “you just have to apply commonsense when evaluating the facts of each situation, and ask what a reasonable person would do in each particular situation. And I don’t think that it’s been a drastic change if you just apply that rationale.”
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