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Lawyers: 'Stand your ground' law becoming more common defense

BROOKSVILLE — On a sticky summer night in 2010, William Siskos tucked a .22-caliber Ruger in his waistband and walked to a home on Ligonier Road in Spring Hill.

There, in the front yard, he met Joe Kasbach for the first time. In the nine months before that night, Siskos had been dating Kasbach's wife. An argument broke out almost immediately. Within minutes, authorities say, Siskos pulled his gun and fired a round into Kasbach's abdomen. The 46-year-old was pronounced dead at the hospital.

A witness, standing just feet away, told detectives Kasbach never threw a punch or pulled a weapon. Kasbach had spread his arms wide and taken just a half step toward Siskos before, the witness said, he was shot down in cold blood.

But on Monday, two years after the incident, Siskos' public defender told a judge her client had killed Kasbach in self defense. In fact, the attorney argued, Siskos shouldn't even face trial because he had done nothing more that night than stand his ground.

Judges can take days to rule on "stand your ground" motions. In Monday's hearing, which lasted eight hours and included 10 witnesses, Judge Daniel Merritt Jr. decided in just 45 minutes to deny the defense's motion that Siskos, 42, should be immune from prosecution.

The hearing in Siskos' case is a by-product of Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law signed in 2005. Though no statistics are kept on how many such hearings have been held in self-defense cases, prosecutors and defense lawyers say they're becoming more common, even when victims suffer minor injuries or defendants have weak self defense cases. They've been filed on behalf of gang members, drug dealers and in spouse abuse cases, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

"They're almost part of due diligence," said Tampa defense attorney Joe Caimano, who argued a successful "stand your ground" motion before a Hillsborough County judge late last year. His client, a bouncer at a strip club, shot and injured a patron who had thrown a beer bottle in his direction.

In 2010, Florida's Supreme Court ruled that trial judges must hold a hearing any time a defendant asks for it, then make a decision based on the "preponderance of the evidence." That's easier to prove, experts said, than the "reasonable doubt" standard used by juries.

Critics of the law say the mandatory immunity hearing adds costs and complexity to an already overburdened court system.

Monday's hearing may have bolstered that criticism. Costs included the all-day use of a courtroom, a judge, a public defender, two prosecutors, clerks and bailiffs and, for a few hours, one very expensive witness.

Dr. Otsenre E. Matos, a Pasco County psychiatrist who charges $750 an hour for court appearances, had analyzed Siskos and determined that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder because of an injury the defendant suffered as a corrections officer in the late 1990s.

His public defender, Barbara-Jo Bell, argued to the court that the condition had skewed her client's psyche so significantly that, two years ago, Siskos "reasonably believed" he would be killed or suffer great bodily harm — legally justifying deadly force — even though he may not have been in real danger.

In his testimony, Siskos said he carried the gun for protection that night because he was trying to retrieve his girlfriend from a friend's home — a place he described as a "drug house."

As Kasbach left the home, Siskos confronted him in the front yard. During the dispute, the defendant testified, Kasbach punched him once in the mouth and then again in the temple. Dazed from the blows, Siskos said, he fired only after he saw Kasbach reach for a weapon.

Photographs taken of his face the night of the incident show no marks or bruises. Investigators didn't find any weapon at the scene other than Siskos' pistol.

Much of what he said Monday differed from what he told authorities the night of the shooting. The stress disorder, Bell asserted, had distorted his memory back then.

Prosecutors said he's just lying.

"His PTSD didn't play any part in this," said Assistant State Attorney Sonny McCathran. "He went down there and confronted these people … the defendant was the aggressor, therefore he's not entitled to immunity."

Though Merritt ruled against her, Bell said the case she offered to the judge will mimic what she presents to jurors at trial.

The intense national scrutiny on "stand your ground," however, might make finding a jury that will accept her argument more difficult.

"I'm not sure if people are really educated on what the law is," she said. "I think I would be remiss not to bring that up in jury selection."

Times staff writer Kris Hundley contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or jcox@tampabay.com.

Inside

An independent task force wants to make changes to the "stand your ground" law. 3B

Lawyers: 'Stand your ground' law becoming more common defense 04/30/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 7:27am]
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