Trayvon Martin’s slaying – and the subsequent acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman – has raised questions nationwide about Stand Your Ground laws, legislation that many believe allowed Zimmerman to walk.
A panel of community leaders and law enforcement officials convened at Shiloh Baptist Church on East 12th Street Tuesday night to explain the specifics of North Carolina’s version of the law – known as a castle doctrine – and answer questions and concerns from area residents about the law.
Winston-Salem Police Chief Barry Rountree, Forsyth County Sheriff William “Bill” Schatzman, Forsyth District Attorney Jim O’Neill and defense attorney Michael Grace joined Mt. Moriah Outreach Center’s Bishop Todd Fulton and Forsyth County Commissioner Walter Marshall for a candid discussion convened by Marshall and the Ministers Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity.
“Our purpose for being here tonight is to bring awareness of castle laws and Stand Your Ground laws,” said Fulton, chair of the Ministers Conference’s Political Action Committee. “I’m mainly concerned, as a black male, with what happened to Trayvon Martin and to make sure that it doesn’t happen in this community.”
North Carolina has always observed self defense common laws, and the castle doctrine expands upon this idea, allowing a person to use deadly force to defend themselves against an intruder in their home, office or car with no duty to retreat, said Grace. Unlike self defense cases, where the perpetrator must prove that he or she had a reasonable fear of death or serious bodily harm, castle doctrines do not require the victim to wait for a crime to escalate to violence before he or she retaliates.
“The castle doctrine now says that if I’m coming into your home at night or breaking into your car or workplace, there is an assumption that I am violent, and you can face me with deadly force,” he explained. “…Now, you don’t have to be in fear of bodily harm. If they break in, you can shoot them and you can kill them.”
O’Neill said the law is meant to protect the victim.
“As a prosecutor … I feel very strongly that when you’re in your home, that’s a place where you should have a right and an expectation to feel safe,” he said. “When the castle doctrine was enacted, what it did was extended that expectation of being safe in your business and being safe in your car.”
Both Grace and O’Neill said that they felt the Zimmerman case was botched by the prosecution.
“What happened is tragic and unforgivable,” O’Neill said of Martin’s murder. “…I had a difficult time watching and understanding the strategy – or lack of strategy, if you will – of the prosecution.”
“The prosecution didn’t have their hearts in that case. You have to look at the history – they didn’t want to prosecute (Zimmerman) at all,” Grace added. “From the beginning, the case was flawed, and the state made sure it was flawed.”
Residents questioned the panelists on a variety of issues the Martin homicide has highlighted on the local and national stage, from gun control to racial profiling.
Former NAACP President Stephen Hairston questioned the law enforcement officials about their agencies’ attitudes towards racial profiling and asked about the measures they are taking to stop it if it occurs. Rountree said the WSPD has amended its controversial stationary license checkpoints and has had no citizen complaints since doing so.
Voting rights advocate Linda Sutton questioned Sheriff Schatzman about recent legislation that has opened the door for concealed weapons to be carried in bars and parks. Schatzman said proprietors who object to such regulations still have some recourse.
“The current law allows for an individual who has a permit to carry a concealed weapon to carry that weapon in all places where it is allowed,” he stated. “The owner of a business can merely assert or put a sign up that says ‘No Weapons Allowed,’ and that would make that weapon illegal.”
Though castle domain laws do allow for greater discretion in the face of danger, panelists urged audience members to use good judgement should they ever find themselves in such a situation.
“It’s just common sense,” Grace said. “No matter what you think the statute says, what you do ought to pass the gut test.”
City residents Elizabeth Pennix and Rev. Delores McCullough said they found the discussion educational.
“I think they were very honest,” Pennix, a retiree, said of the panelists. “I think that having that mixture (was good), and also the participants, the audience, brought a variety of topics that are concerning the black community.”
McCullough, who serves as secretary for the Ministers Conference, said that she was hopeful that the discussion would be the impetus that inspires local residents to come together around the issues that affect them all.
“I think that it was good tonight,” she said, “but I hope that we are not driven by fear as a result of what happened.”
Fulton and Marshall say they are planning another panel discussion on the topic in the near future, but the date and time have yet to be determined.
Editor’s Note: The Chronicle printed a story about this panel discussion in the Aug. 15 issue based on information sent to the paper by event organizers. That information contained the wrong event date; therefore, the paper printed that this discussion would occur on Aug. 22. The paper received the correct information from organizers after the issue was printed. We apologize for any confusion the error may have caused.