WASHINGTON -- Sen. Ted Cruz accused lawmakers Tuesday of exploiting the shooting death of Trayvon Martin to advance their own political agenda at a Senate hearing on stand your ground laws.
The Texas Republican questioned the purpose of the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing -- its first on stand your ground laws since George Zimmerman was acquitted in July in the 2012 shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.
"Unfortunately, there are many in Washington who seem more driven by advancing a political agenda than actually putting in place common-sense steps toward prosecuting violent crime," Cruz said.
And while he expressed sympathy for Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton, who testified at the hearing, Cruz said the events leading up to Trayvon's death remained unclear.
"None of us in this hearing room were there that night," Cruz said. "None of us knows precisely what happened."
Indeed, the details surrounding Martin's death on the night of Feb. 26, 2012, were pieced together by evidence at the scene and Zimmerman's own account of what transpired.
Zimmerman, who was 28 at the time of the shooting, later told authorities he fatally shot Martin in the chest in an act of self-defense. The neighborhood watch coordinator said he had been following Martin, who looked like he was "up to no good."
Non-emergency dispatchers whom Zimmerman called that night told him not to follow Martin, who turned out to be unarmed and simply returning home from the store. The central question of who initiated the confrontation in Martin's death, and the role of racial profiling, formed the crux of Zimmerman's trial.
Cruz argued that what is known about the case is that it was litigated before a court of law in Florida, and a jury examined the evidence available to reach a verdict of not guilty.
"We know that our system of justice has a process for ascertaining what happened when there is a violent confrontation, particularly one that leads to the loss of life," Cruz said. "That process is a jury trial. A jury for George Zimmerman heard the evidence in that case. He was prosecuted in that case ... and the jury rendered a conclusion."
"The stand your ground laws was not a defense that was raised," he added.
That assertion is not entirely true, and the extent to which stand your ground self-defense laws were considered by the jury has been a point of much debate.
As many as 30 states have some form of stand your ground laws, which allow a person to use deadly force in self-defense, rather than retreat, when faced with the threat of potential death or "great bodily harm." One juror told CNN that stand your ground laws were discussed by the jury before they acquitted Zimmerman.
"The law became very confusing. It became very confusing," Juror B37 told Anderson Cooper in July. "We had stuff thrown at us. We had the second-degree murder charge, the manslaughter charge, then we had self defense, stand your ground."
B37 added that the jury ultimately decided to acquit Zimmerman based on the evidence, and "because of the heat of the moment and the stand your ground."
Stand your ground laws and racial profiling were also scrutinized in Zimmerman's case because Sanford authorities initially used the self-defense laws as a justification in Martin's death. Zimmerman wasn't arrested for 44 days after the shooting, and nationwide protests and outrage prompted Florida Gov. Rick Scott to appoint a special prosecutor in the case.
Zimmerman waived his right to the stand your ground immunity hearing, but he was still afforded the law's protections, which remained embedded in both Florida’s self-defense laws and the jury instructions in his trial. The instructions stated:
If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
Despite that, Cruz said the topic of stand your ground "is not the issue on which that trial turned."
"Sadly, we know that some in our political process have a desire to exploit that tragic, violent incident for agendas that have nothing to do with that young man who lost his life," he said. "And we have seen efforts to undermine the decision of the jury and to inflame racial tensions."
Cruz also argued that the African-American community had actually benefited from stand your ground laws, citing statistics that black individuals successfully invoked the laws in 55 percent of cases, as opposed to a 53 percent rate for white individuals.
The conservative Daily Caller first reported those statistics, citing data from the Tampa Bay Times. Sean Hannity also picked up the report on Fox News, in a segment highlighting how self-defense laws disproportionately help individuals of African-American descent.
But as The Atlantic explained, the Daily Caller "masks the reality" in its report. When analyzing the race of the victim, the data actually showed that when killings involved victims of color, either black or Hispanic, the death was justified under the law 78 percent of the time. When the victims were white, the killings were only justified in 56 percent of the cases.
ThinkProgress also published an overview of statistics on justifiable homicides based on race. The site highlighted a report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that found "some indicators of racial bias" in how stand your ground laws have been applied. It also noted an FBI study showing that "34% of cases involving a white shooter killing a black person were deemed as a justifiable homicide," as opposed to just a 3.3% rate of justifiable homicide when the shooter was black and the victim was white. Similar data was compiled by the Wall Street Journal between 2005 and 2011, ThinkProgress wrote in its report.
Cruz wasn't the only Republican, however, to undermine the purpose of Tuesday's hearing.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) cited his experience as a defense attorney and listed off a series of cases where he successfully defended black individuals against murder charges. And the Republican National Committee, which pledged to expand its minority outreach after the 2012 election, issued a statement citing the black unemployment rate and said Democrats should focus on creating jobs for black Americans.
"While Senate Democrats mobilize to discuss Stand Your Ground Laws, I hope they also plan to rally around black youth facing dwindling opportunities and job prospects across the country," Orlando Watson, the RNC communications director for black media, said in a statement. "While Democrats sit idly as black Americans endure President Obama’s weak economy, the Republican Party continues to fight for all Americans who want to work, earn a living and achieve their vision of the American Dream."
Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, also slammed the hearing in a statement where he pointed out that governors in 20 states, including eight Democrats, have signed stand your ground laws.
"If Sen. Durbin is truly interested in making Americans safer, he should compel Attorney General Eric Holder to testify over what Mayor Rahm Emmanuel called the federal government’s 'horrible' effort of prosecuting criminals with firearms in Chicago -- America’s murder capital in Durbin’s home state," Cox wrote.
The NRA, along with the American Legislative Exchange Council, was heavily responsible for the passage of stand your ground in Florida in 2005. The group's influence makes it highly unlikely that the laws will be repealed any time soon, let alone taken up at a federal level. And earlier this year, the Senate caved to pressure from the gun lobby and failed to pass legislation to expand background checks.
Congress has also been burdened by other pressing issues in recent months -- lawmakers recently came out of the first government shutdown in 17 years, and are now trying to hash out long-term fiscal policy and revisit the issue of immigration reform. There was little indication in Tuesday's hearing, which was sparsely attended by lawmakers, that stand your ground would become a priority.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, nonetheless called for a review of the laws.
"Whatever the motivations were behind the passage of these laws, it is clear that these laws often go too far in encouraging confrontations to escalate into deadly violence," Durbin said during the hearing. "They are resulting in unnecessary tragedies, and they are diminishing accountability under the justice system."