Watch: Self-defense versus stand your ground — which is better in the Ja Morant case?

Written by on July 20, 2023

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Lawyers in the Ja Morant case plan to use Tennesee’s stand your ground law as a defense for the Memphis Grizzlies star, who is being sued by a teenager the pro athlete admits he punched last year. TheGrio’s Marc Lamont Hill sat down with law professor Kami Chavis to talk about whether this is a viable defense. The following is a transcript of their conversation:

Marc L. Hill: He’s one of the brightest stars in the NBA. But Ja Morant’s high-flying act has been grounded after serving a nine-game suspension for waving a gun in a strip club. The NBA commissioner slapped Morant with another 25 games for the upcoming season for having what looked like another gun on Instagram Live. Now, we won’t see him on the court for a while, but Morant is still making moves in court. He’s claiming that he was acting in self-defense when he punched a 17-year-old at his home during a pickup game last year. Morant’s lawyers acknowledged that he punched Joshua Holloway only after Holloway threw a ball at Morant, hitting him in the chin. They say under Tennessee’s stand your ground laws, Morant should be immune to liability. So is that really a thing? Can you really do that? Let me answer that question and we’ll bring in an expert. Her name is Kami Chavis. She is a law professor and she’s the founding director of the Center for Criminal Justice Policy and Reform at the William & Mary Law School. Thank you so much for joining me, Professor. Let me get this straight. Stand your ground helps you against intruders. Somebody breaks in, you can protect yourself, you can protect your home. You ain’t got to run if someone is attacking you in your home. I’m sort of clear on that, I think. But this feels like a license to just escalate any kind of disagreement. Now, I’m not protecting my home. I’m not being robbed, I’m not being burglarized. I’m just getting — assuming Ja Morant is telling the truth — a ball is being thrown at me and now I have the I have the right to just fight back? This feels like something else. 

Kami Chavis: Yeah. So what’s interesting is stand your ground actually is an expansion of the doctrine that says when you’re in your home, you do not have to run from an intruder. So it is it’s all very strange here because. 

Hill: The castle doctrine. 

Chavis: He is in his home, so he does have a right to defend himself. But anytime you’re thinking about the law of self-defense, you can only use that defense if the force that you’re met with, you have to respond with appropriate force that is proportionate. So you can’t use excessive force. What’s interesting here is that it’s just not clear. He’s in his home. And this young man, if it’s true, is throwing the basketball at him. You really don’t even need to go to stand your ground in terms of figuring out how to resolve this. 

Hill: So if I understand you correctly, just being in your house alone, your home is your castle, you can defend it, you ain’t got to run, all the other macho stuff that’s embedded in the law, I get. But the spirit of the law here feels a little bit different, right? I mean, like the goal of the purpose of that law wasn’t, didn’t mean that if we’re having a barbecue and you throw a tomato at me that I can throw a watermelon back at you, I mean, at some point, don’t we have some duty to de-escalate? 

Chavis: So there is certainly a duty to de-escalate. And when you’re not in your home, you can respond with appropriate force. So the issue here is whether or not when Ja Morant punched that young man, whether or not that was appropriate force, whether or not he was responding with appropriate force, because and again, whether or not he had a reasonable belief that this young man, the 17-year-old man, a boy really, all whether or not… 

Hill: Kid. Right. 

Chavis: Whether he was going to be some way threatened by that. That to me is really what’s a little bit unbelievable here. So you’re in your home, no one can force you to step away from the altercation, but you still have to use an appropriate amount of force, you have to respond with an appropriate amount of force. So to me, the question really is whether or not that force was disproportionate. And stand your ground, it does open up this whole other conversation about stand your ground and the validity of that. And we have, again, two African-American males, this is not a defense that usually benefits African-American males. And we can talk about that. 

Hill: I’m glad you said that because, you know, in castle doctrine, Second Amendment more broadly, stand your ground, all these laws have largely been used to support people in states and in political territories that are largely conservative and often white. And when we see public campaigns, when we see people closing ranks around people who appeal to these laws they’re often for those very same populations, Republican and/or white or both, usually. Really. So that’s why this Ja Morant thing is so curious to me. I mean, he was accused of waving a gun on TV or, excuse me, on Instagram, in a club. He’s been accused of waving another gun in the car. Nobody suggests these guns aren’t legal. No one is arguing these guns aren’t his. And yet the NRA is really, really silent on this. I’ve seen the NRA, I’ve seen other people go to the mattresses in defense of people like Kyle Rittenhouse and yeah, and even George Zimmerman. And yet I’ve heard not a mumbling word in defense of Ja Morant. Whether you agree with Ja Morant or not, it’s just interesting to me who these entities are willing to support and who they’re not. 

Chavis:  Well, and we even see that. So we know that the NRA is the mastermind, the organization behind the proliferation of these stand your ground laws, which expand the castle doctrine. We know that the NRA is standing behind that. And then when you look at how stand your ground has even been applied, you can most confidently, if you are a white assailant, you can confidently use that defense when your victim is black, which is there are a lot of statistics that show that the difference in race matters, that you’re likely to you’re the homicide. And usually we were talking about homicides and shootings in most cases, and we’re not talking about that with that Ja Morant case here. But usually these homicides are deemed justifiable, more likely to be deemed justifiable when the victim is white. So how that plays here, I think you’re exactly right. We have Kyle Rittenhouse, George Zimmerman, all of these white vigilantes that the NRA is rushing to support. And then we have other folks and we can deal with Ja Morant may be on a list, a long list of others where they don’t get that same benefit of the doubt or support. 

Hill: Absolutely. And there’s no coincidence there. You’d almost think that maybe in some ways they’re not really fighting for American rights, liberation, justice or safety, that maybe, just maybe — this is my opinion not Kami Chavis’ — but maybe, just maybe, they’re only fighting for white people’s rights to have guns and to be able to fight back and to engage in certain forms of self-defense. There’s a long history of black folk being denied access to the very things that white people are fighting for in these instances. And so the law in many ways is carved out in a way that reinforces that. You know, Professor, it’s almost like some critical race theory playing out here, but I know we’re not allowed to say that in public. Anyway, Professor, thank you so much for your brilliant insight. We’ve got to have you back to help break all this legal stuff down. 

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