The Real Shame Behind the Texas Prostitute Killing

The man who killed a prostitute because she wouldn't return his $150 has been acquitted. Now what?

Everyone is up in arms, quite legitimately, about Wednesday morning’s news:

A jury in Bexar County, Texas just acquitted Ezekiel Gilbert of charges that he murdered a 23-year-old Craigslist escort—agreeing that because he was attempting to retrieve the $150 he'd paid to Frago, who wouldn't have sex with him, his actions were justified.

Gilbert had admitted to shooting Lenora Ivie Frago in the neck on Christmas Eve 2009, when she accepted $150 from Gilbert and left his home without having sex with him. Frago, who was paralyzed by the shooting, died several months later.

My Facebook feed is full of irate comments from people who think the jury gave legal credence to misogyny and male ownership of women. Commenters can’t believe a jury could be so sexist that it would excuse a man for murdering a woman who decided not to have sex with him.

But the legal basis of the killer’s excuse was not this. It was a Texas law that permits exactly what he did: shooting someone who threatens to steal your property.

Remember last year’s tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida? Shooter George Zimmerman’s defense in the trial underway now is that he was defending himself under Florida’s “stand your ground” law permitting a person to shoot a perceived assailant in self-defense. Turns out Texas has a similar “Castle Doctrine” law on its books and it applies to protection of one's property as much as to one's life. Here is the section that got Ezekiel Gilbert off:

Sec. 9.41.  PROTECTION OF ONE'S OWN PROPERTY.  (a)  A person in lawful possession of land or tangible, movable property is justified in using force against another when and to the degree the actor reasonably believes the force is immediately necessary to prevent or terminate the other's trespass on the land or unlawful interference with the property.

You can blame the jury, but this law is the true scandal behind yesterday’s decision. Texas, and quite a few other states, give citizens the right to shoot first and ask questions later. More worrisome than the sexist overtones of the prostitute's killing are patterns of racism and legalized vigilantism:

A review of FBI data by the Houston Chronicle found that the citizen shootings most often happen after dark and involve a male shooting a handgun during a home invasion. The shooter is most often a minority, as is the person killed, according to the analysis.

Twenty-seven of those deaths in 2010 were in Houston, including that of 24-year-old Benito Pantoja, who was shot and killed with a .357 Colt for $20.29 stolen from a tip jar of a Houston taco truck. Texas law always has allowed deadly force against intruders and thieves to protect lives and property, but where it once required a duty to try to retreat if possible when facing imminent danger, it no longer does, the newspaper reports.

In the State of Nature, John Locke writes, it’s fine to “kill a thief” who threatens “to take away [your] money.”

But living within political society is another matter entirely: for Locke, and for Hobbes who wrote a few decades earlier,  the very raison d’etre of governments is to impose monopolies on violence and law enforcement.  The idea of civilization is to escape the “nasty, poor, brutish and short” existence of lawlessness, not to legally encode it. 

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