Monday, April 23, 2018

A more-grounded SYG?

In April 2005, as legislators moved closer to passing a bill that would become known as Florida's "stand your ground" law, then-Rep. Dan Gelber proposed a simple, 54-word amendment.

The gist: If you're attacked and you can safely escape without killing someone or risking death yourself, you should.

"It may be somebody that deserves it," Gelber said Wednesday. "But at the end of the day, if you can walk away safely or resist the impulse to kill, I think you ought to."

The bill passed nearly nine years ago, without his amendment. Instead, the language in the law, and in jury instructions, says a person who is attacked any place he or she "has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force" if the person "reasonably believes" it's necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm.

And polls suggest it's popular among the public, and it's unlikely to be changed in the legislative session beginning in March.

But since then, cases in which the expanded law has played a role have captured the attention — and often the ire — of the nation.

The acquittal of George Zimmerman brought protests and boycotts and sit-ins, but no change.

Criticism erupted again last week when a jury couldn't decide whether Michael Dunn was guilty of murder when he shot and killed Jordan Davis, 17, in Jacksonville after a dispute over loud music.

A juror who spoke to ABC's Nightline Tuesday pointed to the self-defense law in jury instructions to explain why two of the 12 jurors refused to convict Dunn.

And if history serves, controversy will follow the case of former police Officer Curtis Reeves, who says he was defending himself when he shot Chad Oulson in a Wesley Chapel movie theater after an argument over texting.

Gelber isn't surprised. "We were saying all this back then," he said. "You're going to get the escalating scenario that's a normal occurrence in a parking lot or wherever . . . and all of the sudden somebody says something and there's a push and somebody gets shot."

"It has opened a very large can of worms," said Stetson Law professor Charlie Rose, "and we're getting results that society at large doesn't think makes sense."

Mark O'Mara, who defended Zimmerman, suggested Gelber's amendment, or one like it, would improve the law.

"The idea of having to try to retreat if you can without putting yourself in danger just makes a lot of sense," said O'Mara, who suggested a similar change last year. "I like that language."

O'Mara said the frequency in which "stand your ground" is being cited suggests more people may be quicker to shoot in self defense without trying to defuse the situation or walk away.

"The reality is, from 2005 to 2012, before the Zimmerman craziness, there were 216 'stand your ground' cases," he said. "I've got to imagine that we are having a significant number more 'stand your ground' arguments, because now every Tom, Dick and Harry says, 'I shot him because I was afraid.' And it's a get out of jail free card."

Dunn testified he thought he saw a shotgun, but police found no gun and no witnesses who saw one. Attorneys for Reeves, the movie theater shooter, have raised questions about an "unknown black object" security cameras show flying toward the man, introducing the possibility of reasonable fear. "The real tragedy here is that these cases are happening at all," Franks said.

That's what Mary Martell thinks every time she hears about a new "stand your ground" case.

"This law is a license to kill," she said. "You can shoot me and kill me and you can walk."

Martell's only son, Joe, was shot dead in 2008 in a crowd after a parade at a Pasco County festival. The man who shot him six times with a .45-caliber pistol claimed Joe Martell punched him once. The man said he had a heart condition and couldn't have sustained another punch.

The shooter, Max Wesley Horn, was acquitted.

"It's amazing how many people are using this law. It's like a free for all for murder out there," said Martell, 60. "The man who killed our son could've called the police if he thought there was a problem. I don't understand it. We put absolutely no value on a life."

 
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