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Professors Discuss Questions of Racial Bias and Criminal Procedure in Trayvon Martin Shooting

April 17, 2012

Professors Donald F. Tibbs, Barry R. Furrow, Adam Benforado, Anil Kalhan and Kevin Woodson engaged in a panel discussion at the law school on April 16 regarding the shooting of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla.

At the heart of the controversy is the so-called Florida "stand your ground" law which, until April 11, allegedly prevented the arrest of Trayvon's shooter, George Zimmerman. Commenting that the law memorializes America’s obsession with handguns, Furrow analyzed the statute at issue, pointing out that the immunity provision in the law codifies what is normally an affirmative defense at trial.

Until this past Wednesday when Martin’s shooter, George Zimmerman, was arrested, Florida law enforcement officials claimed the law precluded the possibility of arrest, Furrow said. Professor Kalhan, who teaches criminal law at the law school, contended that, despite appearances, the law, at best, poses a procedural question of whether an arrest was valid - a question only a judge should decide.

Professor Tibbs, whose expertise focuses on the overlapping issues of race, law, civil rights and criminal procedure, has followed the case since its inception, extensively commenting on the controversy in the media. Tibbs agreed that the law should not have precluded Zimmerman’s arrest. Even beyond the law, as a basic constitutional proposition, given that Zimmerman was armed and admittedly shot Martin, probable cause existed for an arrest, Tibbs said.

Professor Woodson discussed the racial issues and societal stereotypes present in these kinds of cases. Woodson commented that this case forces the media, and society in general, to look at race and examine what it means to be young black male, as Martin was, growing up in America. Woodson worried that the extensive media coverage might actually be counterproductive, causing people to disassociate themselves from racial bias rather than question whether it is present in their day to day lives.

Benforado, whose scholarship focuses on the applications of moral cognition and implicit social cognition to the law, claimed that the mere possession of a gun makes a potential shooter, like Zimmerman, more likely to perceive threatening racial stereotypes even where a person is unarmed. Moreover, Benforado argued that while many of the violent acts against young black males in the past fifty years were the functions of overt racism, racial bias in the modern age has become more implicit than overt. The media’s proliferation of black male stereotypes coupled with a culture that is increasingly reliant on self-policing breeds almost a subconscious tendency for bias, Benforado said. This implicit bias coupled with the gun-wielding effect could provide some insight into why the Martin tragedy occurred, Benforado concluded.