MU faculty panelists discuss Trayvon Martin's death

Monday, April 9, 2012 | 9:17 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Public perceptions of the death of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent debate over whether George Zimmerman should be charged with a crime are influenced by a complex web of self-defense law, racial attitudes and media coverage, three MU faculty members said at a forum Monday.

The MU School of Law and the MU Difficult Dialogues Program hosted "Implications of the Death of Trayvon Martin" on Monday afternoon at MU's Hulston Hall. The panel included three MU associate professors: David Mitchell, associate professor of law; Kent Collins, associate professor and chair of radio-television journalism; and Bruce Bartholow, associate professor of psychological sciences.

Martin, 17, was shot and killed Feb. 26 during a confrontation with Zimmerman in a gated community in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman has claimed he was acting in self-defense when he shot Martin, who was unarmed. Protesters across the country have insisted that Zimmerman be charged in the death.

On Monday, The Associated Press reported that the case would not go to a grand jury and that the decision about whether to charge Zimmerman would be special prosecutor Angela Corey's. 

At the MU forum, Mitchell began with a chronological overview of the case, then noted the ambiguities and contradictions in self-defense law. Under common law, he said, people are allowed to assert self-defense in cases where they reasonably believe they are under attack.

"Self-defense is generally returning force with force — equal force with equal force, not escalated."

Mitchell also explained that the long-standing Castle Doctrine states that your home is your safe space and that you are legally justified in using force to repel someone invading it. 

In 2005, however, Florida changed its self-defense laws, declaring that a person is justified in using deadly force if he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.

"The castle is no longer your home. You are your home. You are your castle," Mitchell said of the Florida statute, which is commonly known as the "Stand Your Ground Law."   

"What's imminent? Whose reasonable belief?" Mitchell asked. "To whom is that reasonable person based upon? Critical feminist scholars say it does not talk about women; it's based upon a patriarchal standard. Critical race theorists say it is based upon a patriarchal system of white males. This reasonable belief has already been tainted. It is not clear. It is not explicit."

The legal issues surrounding the Martin-Zimmerman case will subside, Mitchell said, but the social consequences will linger.

Those consequences are exactly what Bartholow tried to explain in social psychology terms.

Ideas of stereotyping and prejudice have changed significantly since the 1930s when the social psychology of racial bias was first studied, Bartholow said. Since the 1960s especially, explicit attitudes and overt acts of racism have been on the decline, but implicit prejudices remain in place. 

"The notion now is that stereotyping and prejudice, while unfortunate in many respects, are a byproduct of the way that our brains process information," Bartholow said.

"Whether we like it or not, our brains are constantly collecting and gathering information from our environment and using that information to help us predict what we should do under a certain set of circumstances."

That, Bartholow said, can cause our brains to default to stereotypes, or what he called "real-world bias." 

Bartholow said that once people recognize that we all carry biases we will be in better position to control how they affect our behavior.

Collins, of the Missouri School of Journalism, said the media can be a source of powerful influence in shaping biases. He explained the difference between true news reports and media that use news for entertainment or commentary.

Collins said that although the media play an important watchdog role in stories such as the Martin-Zimmerman case, some news reports also can play into the "culture of fear."

"The media has the power to make you fearful," he said. "We have the power possibly to make you happy, to make you outraged. We have opportunities to speak to you in a way that creates an emotion." 

The decisions that the media make regarding how they edit words and pictures can perpetuate biases and create a culture of fear. 

Collins noted the different photos of Martin and Zimmerman that various media outlets have used in their reporting. Collins argued that photos can be misleading and manipulated to blur reality. 

One popular image of Martin, for example, shows him with a bright smile as a much younger child, while another depicts him wearing a hoodie. Similarly, a common photo of Zimmerman is a 2005 police mug shot from the Orange County Jail, while another shows him smiling in a jacket and tie.

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