AD Main Menu

Debate heats up over Alaska's version of 'stand your ground'

Laurel Andrews

On the heels of the hotly-debated ruling in the George Zimmerman murder trial, a case which, through the death of Trayvon Martin, threw Florida’s so-called “stand your ground” law into the national spotlight, Alaska will soon add a similar provision to the books. And discussion of the law's implications has started heating up around the Last Frontier.

The Anchorage chapter of the NAACP jumped into the debate on Sunday. The organization led a Downtown march protesting the George Zimmerman ruling and kicking off a signature-gathering campaign against Alaska’s law, set to go into effect in September.

NAACP Anchorage chapter president Wanda Greene said that Sunday’s rally, where 50 to 65 people dressed symbolically in hooded sweatshirts marched in downtown Anchorage, was intended to send a message to the U.S. Justice Department to take a deeper look into the George Zimmerman case, in which Zimmerman was acquitted on murder charges for the shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin. The case has sparked a heated debate on self-defense laws and race relations in the U.S.

Stand your ground laws, including Alaska's, in essence extend the so-called “castle doctrine” outward into public spaces, giving people in certain circumstances the option to use deadly force instead of requiring their retreat from an altercation. Supporters say it allows law-abiding people to protect themselves without fear of criminal prosecutions or civil penalties. Those in opposition say the law will muddy criminal cases and disproportionately affect minority populations.

NAACP President Wanda Greene called the statute about to take effect “a scary law.”

“Statistically, African-Americans and minorities get the short end of the stick,” she said, an assertion that the Tampa Bay Times has explored in depth in relation to Florida’s law.

The NAACP’s petition asks the Alaska Legislature and Gov. Parnell to “reconsider their position on HB 24,” the name of the bill about to take effect as Alaska's version of the stand your ground law.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Mark Neuman of Wasilla, expands upon Alaska’s current self-defense law. Alaska statutes state that people may use deadly force against another individual if they feel they are under threat of serious physical injury, sexual assault, kidnapping, or robbery. Under current law, people first have a duty to retreat, however, if they are able to safely leave the premises. Exceptions to this are if someone is on their own property, at work, if they are a police officer, or if they are protecting children or their family. In these cases, people may stand their ground.

HB 24 expands a person’s right to stand their ground to “any other place where the person has a right to be,” thus removing the duty for a person to retreat.

Neuman, a gun owner and NRA endowment member, said he introduced the bill because he feels a person should have the same rights regardless if they are at home or in a public place.

Gov. Parnell signed HB 24 on June 20 in Palmer, along with several other pieces of firearms legislation. Prior to the signing, Alaska’s Office of the Attorney General reviewed the bill, and found that the law “may complicate certain criminal prosecutions,” but “does not present any legal concerns.”

The muddying of criminal prosecutions is the crux of the issue for longtime Anchorage prosecutor James Fayette, who stressed that his opinions were personal and in no way reflected the opinion of his law office.

“This statute is specifically intended to make it harder to prosecute people who use deadly force in public places,” he said.

Prosecutors faced with a stand-your-ground argument from a defendant will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, and with unanimous consent from a 12-person jury, that the person did not act in self-defense in order to charge someone in court. If a prosecutor is unable to do so, the defendant will be acquitted.

While supporters of the law say that it will enhance a basic human right, Fayette said those with nefarious intentions may benefit from the law as well. “The people who are going to take advantage of this are the bad guys -- the drug dealers, the gangs,” Fayette said.

Neuman was not concerned with the possibility of gang members using the law to their advantage. Alaska’s statutes state that the self-defense law does not apply if a person is engaging in criminal activity.

“That’s what the law says, but that’s not how it plays in court,” Fayette said. “The evidence that shows its gang activity is never going to be clear.”

Neuman said the stand your ground law will help to protect the rights of innocent people. He said there were cases where prosecuting attorneys could levee blame on a person acting in self-defense, who then “suddenly becomes the bad guy” in court. Neuman couldn’t point to specific cases where this has occurred, but stated that “the possibility is there.”

Parnell’s office said his position has not changed on the issue following the NAACP’s protest. Alaska will join 25 other states with some version of a stand your ground law or doctrine when its version goes into effect on Sept. 18.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com