LARGO — Clad in orange jail scrubs, Michael Drejka made his first court appearance Tuesday afternoon via video monitor, one day after he was arrested on a manslaughter charge in the shooting of Markeis McGlockton.
The proceeding was brief and perfunctory, with Judge Joseph Bulone appointing a public defender to represent Drejka, 48, and keeping his bail at $100,000. If Drejka posts enough money to secure his release, he will have to wear a GPS tracking device, stay in Pinellas County and avoid McGlockton’s family. The state is in the process of suspending his concealed carry permit, according to prosecutor Fred Schaub, and the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has already seized the .40 caliber Glock that Drejka used in the shooting of McGlockton, a 28-year-old father of three. He is not allowed to possess any guns if he gets out of jail.
McGlockton’s father, Michael McGlockton, and girlfriend, Britany Jacobs, watched from the front row with their attorneys. They didn’t speak during the hearing but addressed the media in front of the courthouse afterward.
"I can tell my kids now that the police got the bad man," said Jacobs, who was in the car with two of the couple’s children when Drejka initially approached the family.
The shooting has reignited a debate over Florida’s stand your ground law, drawing nationwide furor and spurring multiple rallies in Clearwater. McGlockton pushed Drejka to the ground after seeing him argue with Jacobs over her parking in a handicap-reserved space. Drejka pulled out his gun and fired one shot. McGlockton stumbled into the Circle A Food Store at 1201 Sunset Point Road and collapsed.
In more than three weeks since the altercation, Drejka, of Clearwater, has not made any public statements.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri initially declined to arrest Drejka, who could face up to 30 years in prison, the day after the shooting, citing the stand your ground law — a decision that sparked outcry and accusations of racial injustice. McGlockton is black. Drejka is white.
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe told the Tampa Bay Times Monday that his office "reviewed everything, and we filed the charge we think we can prove." Gualtieri said he supports McCabe’s decision.
The first appearance Tuesday was a minor opening in what is sure to be a long legal battle hinging on whether Drejka had a reasonable fear of further attack when he pulled the trigger, as he told deputies.
After almost four hectic weeks of rallies, news conferences and expansive media coverage, lawyers said, updates to the case will come more sparingly as it begins to slog through court.
Defense attorneys will seek discovery from prosecutors, gathering and reviewing evidence in a process that will span several months. Every witness will be deposed. Experts will be brought in to review the evidence, making sure the surveillance video and measurements — authorities estimate Drejka was 12 feet away from McGlockton when he pulled the trigger — are correct. Those experts will also be deposed.
Multiple Tampa Bay lawyers referenced the case of Curtis Reeves, a former police officer who shot and killed Chad Oulson during a dispute inside a movie theater in Pasco County in January 2014. Reeves’s lawyers argued unsuccessfully that he was immune from charges under stand your ground. But the case is still pending, and the trial will not start before 2019.
"That’s in its fourth year, and this stand your ground law has just created endless opportunities for litigation to delay," said Tampa lawyer John Fitzgibbons.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys will clash before the trial, experts said, including in a potential stand your ground hearing and in debates over whether Drejka’s history of road rage allegations is admissible before a jury. The Times has reported that although Drejka had never been arrested in Florida before, he was the accused aggressor in four incidents since 2012.
Fitzgibbons said "the case could well turn" on whether a judge allows jurors to hear evidence of the earlier allegations, which prosecutors could use to paint Drejka as aggressive and help secure a conviction.
Clearwater defense lawyer Denis deVlaming said a stand your ground hearing is not a given. He said the shooting of McGlockton has already garnered a lot of publicity, and if Drejka’s defense teams think such an immunity claim is unlikely to succeed, they might not risk it generating further headlines.
"If it’s denied, it’s going to go viral as well," deVlaming said. Jurors, he said, ultimately might look less positively upon a self-defense claim if a judge ruled stand your ground did not apply to Drejka. DeVlaming pointed to lawyers for George Zimmerman, who argued self-defense and won an acquittal for their client in the shooting of Trayvon Martin but did not seek a stand your ground hearing.
Still, deVlaming said, "If this goes to trial it’s going to be at least a year and a half from now."
Another potential subject of dispute is whether defense attorneys will try to use Gualtieri’s statements against prosecutors. The sheriff’s referencing of stand your ground in not making an arrest could influence a jury, said deVlaming, who disagreed with Gualtieri’s interpretation of the law.
"If he has some reasonable doubt ... why shouldn’t you have reasonable doubt, ladies and gentlemen of the jury?" deVlaming said, making an example of what he’d say to jurors. "If I was defending the case, you’re damn right I’d try to get it in."
Fitzgibbons and Lee Pearlman, another Tampa Bay defense lawyer, said Gualtieri made the right move by kicking the decision on charging Drejka to the State Attorney’s Office.
"It was not his call, it was never his call, it was never going to be his call," Pearlman said.
But that doesn’t mean the defense won’t try to use the lack of an arrest to their advantage.
"It’s almost endless when you start thinking about the possibilities under this difficult-to-interpret law," Fitzgibbons said.
The long road ahead wasn’t lost on family members, who said in the days since Drejka’s arrest that they’re now hoping for an eventual conviction.
"They are still struggling for answers," said civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who is representing Jacobs. "The arrest and the charges are only but one step of this journey to get justice."
TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: STAND YOUR GROUND CASE
Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or [email protected] Follow @kathryn varn.