Florida's 'stand your ground' law was born of 2004 case, but story has been distorted

PENSACOLA

In 2005, as lawmakers pushed to pass sweeping self-defense legislation that would become known as the "stand your ground" law, critics had one challenge: Show us a case in which someone had been treated unjustly. • Backers of the new bill had an answer: James Workman.

Here was a 77-year-old retiree asleep with his wife in an RV outside their hurricane-damaged home in 2004. And here came a menacing intruder, prowling through the dark, bursting into the trailer. The homeowner shot the intruder, then had to wait months — painful, anxiety-filled months in legal jeopardy — before prosecutors decided the two shots he fired were justified, that what he did was protect himself and his wife.

That's too long, said the senator who introduced the bill.

"You're entitled to protect your castle," Durell Peaden said at the time. "Why should you have to hire a lawyer to say, 'This guy is innocent'?"

The story was repeated again and again, to reporters and in the halls of the Capitol.

It worked. The law passed 39-0 in the Senate and 94-20 in the House, and then it swept across the nation, driven hard by the National Rifle Association, to more than two dozen other states.

But if you really look at the case, you see that the story told by proponents of "stand your ground" is a distortion. And it's being distorted to this day.

What happened on that warm and windy night on the banks of Big Lagoon was a tragedy for everyone involved. But it was not a case that suggested a need for a new law.

James Workman bought the brick house on the corner of Seaglade Drive in the late '90s. It was a peach of a retirement home.

Workman didn't know much about saltwater fishing. He threw lures in lakes and ponds in southeast Missouri, where he served as county commissioner before retiring to Florida, but the view of Big Lagoon was breathtaking. Plus, his home wasn't far from the golf course, where he shot in the low 90s.

When Hurricane Ivan made landfall on Sept. 16, 2004, it killed more than a dozen people and shredded much of the Emerald Coast, especially the area west of Pensacola. In the following weeks, workers from across the South headed to Florida to restore power and rebuild homes and make a little extra money.

The winds tore off the front porch of Workman's house and ruined the roof. Workman, 77 then, and his wife, Kathryn, 56, tried to make do, but a good portion of the house was unlivable. They did what they could to clean up after the storm, then headed to a vacation home in North Georgia for a respite.

A neighbor called while they were gone to report that someone camping across the street had hooked a water hose to the Workmans' home. This concerned them. Thieves and criminals had followed the itinerant cleanup workers, and nerves were frayed. Three weeks before, 100 yards away from their brick house, a growling man with a machete had tried to break into a travel trailer. Deputies had subdued the man with a bean-bag projectile and a Taser.

The day the Workmans returned, Nov. 2, they fell asleep inside an RV parked in their drive. The night was warm and windy, and it was hard to sleep. Sometime after 2 a.m., Kathryn got up to adjust the window.

That's when she saw him.

Through the dark, she saw a man approaching the front door of her damaged home, about 20 feet away.

She woke her husband. He grabbed a .38-caliber handgun, opened the door and stepped outside.

• • •

Rodney Cox had come to Florida to pick up freelance work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, leaving behind in North Carolina his wife and two kids, Corey, 11, and Samantha, 3.

Cox, 35, was a doting father, his family said. He loved to play in the swimming pool with his children and take his son fishing. Cox would leave his home in Asheville, N.C., at a moment's notice and be casting lines and cracking cold beers on the Atlantic in a half-dozen hours.

He played a lot of golf and shot in the high 80s. He listened to Jimmy Buffett and Lynyrd Skynyrd. He never had to study to make good grades in school, his sister said, and he aced the test to get his general contractor's license. His hard work earned him a fishing boat and vacations to Cancun and the Outer Banks.

"He was a good kid," said his uncle, Billy Autry, 56. "I'm not trying to make him sound like an altar boy, but you can search high and low and you won't be able to find a criminal record."

What is on his record are a handful of speeding tickets and traffic infractions, boating without proper lights, fishing without a trout license, and one charge of driving while impaired, to which he pleaded guilty and paid a $100 fine and $90 in court costs.

Cox rode to Florida with a friend, arriving on Nov. 2. He found a place to stay in a camper on private property on Sanchez Lane, in the midst of the destruction, near Gulf Beach Highway. His friend headed back home to fetch more equipment.

The first indication that something may have been wrong with Rodney Cox came at 7:08 that evening. The Escambia County Sheriff's Office received a 911 call from his cellphone. The call kept breaking up.

"What do you need?" the dispatcher asked.

"A sheriff's deputy," Cox said.

"For what?"

"I believe it's domestic," Cox said.

"Domestic what, sir?"

"Violence to myself," he said.

Cox was trying to guide deputies to his location, but he gave them an incorrect street name several times.

At 7:26, Cox called back. He continued to beckon deputies, but again offered an invalid address. Frustrated, he told the dispatcher: "I'm not from here."

He finally offered the correct street. He told the dispatcher he was staying in a camper beside a house and heard what sounded like a fight inside.

"Who lives in the house, sir?" the dispatcher asked.

"I don't know."

"Who let you park your camper there?"

"Ma'am, I'm from North Carolina working the storm. I have no idea. I'm from FEMA. I don't have no clue. …"

"We'll get somebody out there, okay?" the dispatcher said.

The phone call ended. Cox flagged down a deputy a few minutes later. In his report, the deputy noted that Cox "appeared to be intoxicated." He was jumpy and unable to stand still. He was having trouble completing his sentences. He asked Cox if he had any mental disorders or if he was taking any narcotics. Cox said he'd had several beers but was not using drugs. He told the deputy that someone had tried to break into his trailer, but he didn't know who, and that he wanted to check into a hotel.

Another man staying on the property volunteered to take Cox to a hotel nearby. The deputy watched Cox pack his luggage into the man's truck and leave. Then he went on his way.

As the night dragged on, Cox phoned his mother in North Carolina. He said he was on foot, looking for a place to stay. He told her he wanted to come home, but he didn't have a ride. He asked her to come get him the following day.

That was the last his family heard from Rodney Cox. No one knows how he made it a almost a mile and a half from where he was staying to the brick house on Seaglade Drive.

• • •

If James Workman and Rodney Cox had met under different circumstances, if the night hadn't been as dark or the tension as thick, if it hadn't been past 2 a.m. in a hurricane-wrecked neighborhood full of jumpy people, if one of them hadn't been trespassing and the other hadn't been armed, there's a good chance they would have found common ground. They could have talked about golf, or fishing, or hunting. They might have been friends.

But when James Workman stepped out of his trailer, he faced the unknown.

"Sheriff's 911. What's going on there?"

"Uh, there's a man that was trying to get in our house," Kathryn Workman said. "We're in a trailer … and I just heard gunshots."

"I got you, I'm trying to get someone. … Did he get inside, ma'am?"

"No, he's out, he's out front and my husband was out front, and we went out and he was trying to get in the house, he is a … and we confronted him and he wouldn't, he just kept walking around and wanted a glass of water. …"

Kathryn Workman described the intruder as "kind of balding," "a little bit chunky" and "shortish." Then she began to scream.

"Ma'am, what do you see, what are you hearing?"

More screaming.

"Ma'am, ma'am, if you're going to scream, tell me why you're screaming."

More screaming.

"Ma'am?"

"Oh, help. Stay there where you are (inaudible). … Are you okay, honey?"

A man shouted in the background.

"Ma'am?"

"Yes, oh, God, oh, please send somebody here."

"Ma'am, you've got to tell me what's going on."

"He came in the house and (inaudible) …"

"You've done what?"

"He's in the trailer, he's in the trailer with us."

She cried, and screamed, and there seemed to be a struggle going on.

"Ma'am, what's he wearing?"

"He's got shorts on, he's got …he's (inaudible) … my husband shot him."

• • •

James Workman was not arrested. He and his wife gave recorded statements to the sheriff's deputies.

Two days later, on Nov. 5, James and Kathryn Workman read in the Pensacola News Journal that the "State Attorney's Office will decide whether to rule the shooting justified or file charges."

The waiting and wondering in the following weeks took a toll. Mrs. Workman broke down washing dishes at the thought of her husband spending his last years behind bars. "We worried about him going to jail," she said, "at his age."

Three months later, on Jan. 30, the Workmans read in the same paper that the State Attorney's Office had ruled the shooting justified, that Workman "was confronted with circumstances and conditions beyond his control that resulted in the unfortunate death of Mr. Cox."

Weeks later, when the "stand your ground" law was introduced in the Legislature, a reporter asked David Rimmer, the assistant state attorney who decided not to charge Workman, for his opinion. He would not comment for this story because he is a judge now, but he told the Pensacola News Journal in 2005, "I think the law's fine as it is."

But on April 5, 2005, lawmakers pointed to Workman as the Florida House debated the bill.

"One of the major reasons I support this bill is for a 72-year-old man laying in bed at night with his 68-year-old wife, trying to sleep, when an intruder came in on them," said Greg Evers, a Republican from Baker. "The man shot the intruder, wounded him, did not fatally kill him. But yet for six months, he wondered if he was going to be charged with shooting the man. Folks, that's not right."

In the various accounts, the politicians erred on several facts, the Workmans' ages, 77 and 56, being the least of them. It was less than three months. Workman went outside to confront Cox and fired a warning shot into the ground before Cox ran into the trailer. When Workman chased Cox into the trailer, Cox didn't strike him. He bear-hugged Workman, pinning his arms to his sides.

The gunshot to Cox's abdomen traveled through his left kidney and large intestine and lodged in his pelvis, and the shot to his thigh went through his left profunda femoris artery and lodged in his right thigh. Hospital staffers noted that he was dead on arrival.

• • •

In the wake of the February shooting of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, national attention has turned to the very law passed on Workman's story. Once again, Workman's name is everywhere. The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Miami Herald.

"Dennis Baxley, a member of Florida's House of Representatives, says Workman was in legal limbo for weeks," Time magazine wrote. "Even though prosecutors eventually declined to charge Workman, Baxley co-sponsored the bill that would become the 'stand your ground' law.

" 'We wanted citizens to know that if they are attacked, the presumption will be with them,' says Baxley."

Lawmakers continue to misconstrue the case.

"Original Senate sponsor Durell Peaden said Tuesday it was crafted after an old man from Pensacola shot an intruder who tried to loot his hurricane-ravaged home," reporters from the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau wrote in March. Peaden couldn't remember the man's name, but he said he had to hire a lawyer to defend himself.

Workman never hired a lawyer. And he never thought he'd become the poster child for a bill he was uncertain about at the time.

"We didn't ask for any of this," said Kathryn Workman, taking a break from mowing the lawn, where red flowers and an American flag line the front walk. "We didn't want any of this to happen."

James Workman doesn't know what brought Rodney Cox to his yard that night, what prompted him to mumble and wander around the property, what made him dart inside the RV. But Workman did what he felt he had to do in an intense and frightening moment. His wife was scared for her life.

"I had his blood on my chest," Workman said. "I hate it."

Workman hesitates to offer an opinion on the "stand your ground" law. In 2005, he told a reporter he was "kind of in favor of it," but that he "can see some pitfalls if you make it too loose."

• • •

After a friend identified Rodney Cox's body, after police shipped home his bloody shorts and shirt, his family and friends gathered in North Carolina. They viewed a slideshow of his life and played his favorite music. They went to his mother's house and ate his favorite meal, baked lasagna, and told stories and wondered how this had happened.

They still wonder. What was wrong with Rodney that evening? Why was he acting out of character? The autopsy showed that his skull was fractured. Had he been beaten? Did he run into the trailer in fear for his life?

"It came close to killing my parents," said Cox's sister, Terri Cox Lavery, 44, who still combs through the police reports seven years later, looking for answers. "My mom, just this year, has gotten some of herself back."

Her family, many of them former military, owns guns. Her husband has a permit to carry a concealed weapon. They believe in the right to bear arms and to protect your property.

"But if someone seems disoriented," she said, "I'd like to think that we would, at a distance, first attempt to give some kind of aid and set some boundaries and call for help."

They all agree that it's especially insulting and hurtful that Rodney's death is used by politicians as an example.

"The people who used this incident to pass that law, they're not even on course," said Autry, Cox's uncle. "They're not even close."

Times researchers Natalie Watson, Caryn Baird and John Martin contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650.

Florida's 'stand your ground' law was born of 2004 case, but story has been distorted 04/14/12 [Last modified: Sunday, February 17, 2013 1:57pm]

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