Judicial Notebook

The location: Florida. The victim: an unarmed black youth. The suspect: an older Hispanic male. The confrontation: an argument escalates between the men, leaving the black youth dead. The result: no charges are filed against the suspect.

Although these facts resemble the confrontation between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26, this incident actually took place in Tampa, Fla., on Nov. 21, 2011, when Wathson Adelson fought with Alcisviades Polanco over a traffic incident. Feeling threatened by the unarmed Adelson, Polanco repeatedly stabbed Adelson with an icepick. Adelson died three weeks later. Charges were not filed against Polanco, with the State Attorney's office determining that they could not adequately refute Polanco's "Stand Your Ground" claim of self-defense, a law that gives suspects a legally viable defense to kill first and ask questions later.

Although Florida's Stand Your Ground statute (§776.013-3) has received abundant media attention since Trayvon Martin's death, the law has had a controversial history. Passed in 2005, the statute hinges on three factors. First, did the suspect use deadly force in a location where he was legally permitted to be? Second, was the suspect engaged in a lawful activity? And third, did the suspect reasonably believe he was in imminent peril of death or great bodily harm? If each factor is satisfied, the suspect is entitled to immunity from arrest and prosecution.

But the statute's ambiguity has led to widely divergent interpretations and outcomes. In June, the Tampa Bay Times found that since 2005, nearly 200 cases evoked the Stand Your Ground defense, with 68 percent of suspects going unpunished. Although many of these cases involved unarmed victims literally shot in the back, police, prosecutors and judges claim that Stand Your Ground laws tie their hands when it comes to investigating and charging potential defendants, who receive immunity for using deadly force unless police can establish probable cause that deadly force was unlawful. Police face a Catch-22: They cannot fully investigate an incident (via arresting and interrogating the best "witness" to the incident) unless they have probable cause to investigate, yet they cannot establish probable cause without investigating. The statute also disallows jurors from performing their legal function of deciding whether the suspect was entitled to defend himself, since the suspect is never brought before a jury.

One reason the statute is so ambiguous is its language, particularly in its use of "reasonable." Objectively in self-defense statutes, the word requires that a reasonable person in the suspect's position feel fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm. Subjectively, the word requires that the suspect find it reasonable to be afraid. Since life experiences differ among people, each person has a unique view of what is and is not reasonable under subjective standards. The reasonableness element within the Stand Your Ground statute has been a key factor in debates about the law's efficacy in the wake of Martin's death. Florida Sen. Chris Smith pre-empted Gov. Rick Scott's slow response to the Martin incident by convening his own task force of police officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys and law professors to identify and recommend policy changes and statutory amendments to eliminate the abuse and inconsistency plaguing Florida's law. Among their recommendations was the proposal to eliminate the presumption of reasonable fear (or at least the word "reasonable") from the statute. The report also calls for eliminating blanket immunity for Stand Your Ground claims, educating the police and the public about self-defense, and tracking self-defense cases in Florida.

As psychologists, we can use our knowledge and expertise in psycholinguistics and judicial decision-making to help clarify ambiguities in state statutes in order to streamline the process of criminal investigation and to standardize outcomes. This can help ensure such victims as Trayvon Martin and Wathson Adelson — as well as suspects like George Zimmerman and Alcisviades Polanco — are treated fairly and equally by the legal system.

"Judicial Notebook" is a project of APA Div. 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues).