Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Politics

Romano: Ambiguous words muddy 'stand your ground' law

The outrage has already begun to fade.

The jurors have returned to anonymous lives, and the news crews have left Jacksonville. Michael Dunn has only appeals and a prison sentence in his immediate future, and Jordan Davis' parents have only memories and grief in theirs.

As for the rest of us?

We are still debating this "stand your ground'' law that is somehow celebrated and condemned, both simultaneously and vociferously.

Yet, when all is said and done, nothing will have changed. And that's a shame because we should be better than that.

This is not an argument that "stand your ground'' be repealed. Lawmakers say it won't be, and polls say it shouldn't be. Fair enough.

There is enough violence, fear and frustration in the world that the idea of a strong self-defense law is not just a comfort but a necessity to a great many people.

The problem is — and has been from the beginning — the amount of ambiguity in those self-defense statutes. The verdicts in the Dunn case make that clear.

How could a man be convicted of three counts of attempted murder for shooting into a vehicle but not be found guilty of first-degree murder for actually killing a 17-year-old in that same vehicle?

In Florida, it's actually simple.

The key phrase in statute 776.013 (3) is whether a person "reasonably believes'' it is necessary to use deadly force in a confrontation.

The problem is that is a rather vague standard. And getting 12 jurors to agree on when a person has reasonable fear is not easily done.

"There's a lot of latitude involved when the jury is given instructions,'' said Dr. Patricia Wallace, a forensic psychologist. "And the problem is reasonable fear is an abstract term. We've never quantified what it means.

"Is it reasonable for a white person to fear a black male? Because, if it is, then you have the right to kill them. And all these trials will turn out the same way.''

The jury in Dunn's case convicted him of attempted murder because he shot at the vehicle as it drove away. But it was deadlocked on the murder charge because he claimed his first shots were in response to seeing a shotgun.

No one else saw this shotgun, no shots were fired from it, three other people in the car said it didn't exist, police never found it, and Dunn didn't mention it until later.

Yet several jurors seemed to agree his fear was reasonable.

Frank de la Torre, a public defender in Broward County who has taught a "stand your ground'' class at Florida Atlantic University, points out that self-defense laws have used "reasonable'' as a legal measure for years.

But it was easier to define reasonable fear when self-defense was limited to a person's home. If someone is breaking into your house, using force is an easier call.

Might it be better in "stand your ground'' cases to require compelling evidence beyond a reasonable fear?

"That makes it harder to defend the shooter,'' de la Torre said. "And the Legislature is not going to go for that.''

So instead we have a law that allows the presumption of fear — and not necessarily an identifiable threat — to dictate jury verdicts.

Shouldn't the criteria for killing a person be higher?

Wouldn't that be more reasonable?

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