Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Perspective

What the 'stand your ground' panel didn't do

The task force appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to review Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law spent six months traveling the state, held seven public meetings and heard from 10,000 citizens.

In the end, it did little.

The 19-member group, weighted with supporters of the 2005 bill, issued a report last week, but stopped short of addressing obvious flaws in the law and inconsistencies in its application across the state.

Earlier this year, the Tampa Bay Times spent months identifying "stand your ground" cases and analyzing their outcomes. The results of that investigation were published in a series of stories that could have informed the panel's recommendations.

Here are five glaring issues the panel failed to address:

1. 'Proportionate force'

The panel's report states that "all persons, regardless of citizenship status, have a right to feel safe and secure in our state," and that people have a right to defend themselves from attack "with proportionate force." But it left unstated the fact that most "stand your ground cases" fail that test.

Times' research found that one man killed two unarmed people and walked out of jail. Another shot a man as he lay on the ground. Others went free after shooting their victims in the back. In nearly a third of the cases the Times analyzed, defendants initiated the fight, shot an unarmed person or pursued their victim — and still went free.

In more than half of the cases where the killer got off, the victim was unarmed.

2. Who qualifies?

Defendants engaged in "unlawful activity" are barred from claiming "stand your ground." The panel suggested that lawmakers may want to clarify what they consider "unlawful."

But the panel report did not describe the widespread problem of criminals successfully claiming the defense. The Times revealed that defendants involved in gang shootouts or drug deals have gone free. So have chronic lawbreakers. In fact, nearly 60 percent of defendants in fatal "stand your ground" cases had at least one prior arrest.

One Manatee County drug dealer killed someone, successfully claimed the defense, then killed another man and was forgiven once again under the law.

Instead of focusing on such cases, some panel members fretted about "what-if" scenarios where an overly strict interpretation of "unlawful activity" might prevent someone from claiming self-defense. What if the shooter was an illegal immigrant? What if he was double-parked or littering?

3. Very different outcomes

Can you claim "stand your ground" if your victim is retreating? Can you step outside your front door and shoot someone? Or do you have to lock your door and wait inside?

Courts have come down on both sides of these issues, with defendants in similar circumstances getting the opposite outcome.

Republican Durell Peaden, the former state senator from Crestview who sponsored the bill, said it was never intended for people who put themselves in harm's way before they started firing. But the task force ignored data showing the law is being interpreted precisely that way.

4. Tracking cases

People will always argue over whether making it easier to claim self-defense is a good idea. One indisputable fact — it is extremely difficult to measure the impact if no one keeps track of the cases. The Times spent three months meticulously identifying "stand your ground" cases. But many are nearly impossible to find because when police decide not to pursue a case, no one keeps an account. Even "stand your ground" immunity hearings in front of judges are not systematically logged.

The panel could have called for case tracking, similar to what is required more generally for "justifiable homicide" cases. But it did not mention the issue.

5. Race matters

The task force suggested that lawmakers fund a study to determine how race, gender and other factors affect "stand your ground" outcomes. But the report does not mention what already is known about race and the new law.

The Times found that blacks, whites and Hispanics all have successfully claimed the defense. And the vast majority of the cases reviewed involved victims and defendants of the same race. Outcomes for multirace cases were virtually identical regardless of who was shooting. The only significant difference among races came when looking at who was killed. When the victim was white, the killer went free 59 percent of the time. When the victim was black, the killer went free 73 percent of the time.

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