Thursday, May 24, 2018
Public safety

'Stand your ground' law task force hears stories from family members

LONGWOOD — Joellen Standard was tucking her kids into bed when she heard three pops outside her Crystal River home. She ran downstairs and found her husband at the end of the driveway, holes in his head and side, their neighbor standing over him.

When the man who shot Scott Standard dead claimed self-defense, Joellen couldn't believe what she was hearing. She had called the police on their neighbors 20 times before that night, she says. There was a paper trail of bad blood.

But no charges came and the days clicked by and, on Tuesday, after a year and four months without any kind of justice, she drove across the state, stepped to a microphone in a megachurch here, television cameras rolling, and told her story to the world.

"They were never charged because they said they were in fear for their lives," she told a 19-member panel tasked by the governor to reconsider the state's 2005 expansion of self-defense protection. "The 'stand your ground' law shouldn't apply."

Prompted by protest in the aftermath of the Feb. 26 fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, the task force is reviewing the law to determine whether it should be revised. Its first public meeting offered people three minutes each to make their cases. One by one, families of the dead whose killers were not prosecuted addressed the panel.

Martin's parents were among them, calling for an amendment that would prevent others from having to bury a child and wonder for weeks whether his killer would be charged.

"There is something very wrong," said his mother, Sybrina Fulton, "if there's a law that a person is using to defend himself for killing a kid."

Some in the audience of about 75 argued that the law was flawed and should be repealed or changed. Some said it's fine as is. The division fell along racial lines, save a few exceptions.

Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Krista Marx, who sits on the panel, said the state "significantly expanded" the self-defense law when it removed the duty to retreat. In Florida, a person has the right to stand his ground if he reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm, is not engaged in an unlawful activity and is attacked in any place where he or she has a right to be.

"This is a tremendous change in the law," Marx said.

She also pointed out that the courts have not defined the exact scope of "unlawful activity" and suggested the task force address that. Does unlawful activity include double parking? Does it mean someone with marijuana in his pocket, or a vagrant in a park after dark, may not be granted immunity from prosecution if he defends himself with deadly force? Should "stand your ground" protect someone with an active warrant, or an illegal immigrant?

Law enforcement representatives encouraged the panel to clarify "unlawful activity."

Don Horn, chief assistant state attorney in Miami-Dade, recalled a case in which two men got into a shootout in Miami and a young girl was killed by crossfire. Both men argued stand your ground, and each had a reasonable claim. The "saving grace," Horn said, was that one of the men was a felon in possession of a firearm, which constituted "unlawful activity," and the man was not afforded immunity.

Horn brought up another case with different results. A man was asleep in his apartment when he was alerted to a burglar stealing the radio from his truck. The man grabbed a knife, chased the burglar down the street, stabbed him to death and took the thief's bag of radios. When police questioned him, he at first denied knowing about the stabbing. He had sold the stolen radios. The same man was granted immunity when a judge found he had reason to believe the thief was trying to kill him when he swung the bag of radios at the man's head. A security video didn't show exactly what had happened, so the judge relied on the defendant's testimony.

"Oftentimes, only two people know what happened," Horn said. "And one of them is dead."

Police and prosecutors, who noted that the number of "stand your ground" claims is on the rise, testified that cases in which a defendant invokes his right to self-defense require a more expansive investigation, and sometimes it's far more costly for taxpayers.

Mark Wilson, chief assistant state attorney for Monroe County, recalled a case in which two men got into a fight outside a bar. Though the case against the man responsible for the attack was cut and dried, Wilson said, the man claimed self-defense. The state had to fly witnesses from California to the Keys and house them for the four-day hearing. Immunity was denied, but the state was out thousands.

"There's no way for us to screen out the frivolous cases," he said.

Public defenders agreed that the law may require a more thorough investigation, but suggested it's prudent for police to afford citizens every assumption of innocence before bringing charges.

Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, one of the law's authors, said the panel should be concerned about the application and inequities of the law when it meets again on July 10 in Arcadia. But he urged caution.

"I hope in our zeal to treat people fairly that we don't diminish the ability of law-abiding men and women to protect themselves," he said.

Joellen Standard, 46, watched from a seat near the front, beside her dead husband's mother, who clutched his portrait. Joellen has lost her income from their charter fishing business. She moved out of the home where Scott died. Someone broke in and stole the rest of their stuff. Her kids, 11 and 16, are having a hard time. "We're left to live out the rest of our lives without him," said Scott's mother, Barbara Standard, 73. "There's no justice in this state and this law is disgusting. It's a license to kill."

Joellen Standard still sees the man who killed her husband around town. The last time, he smiled at her.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.

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