Saturday, June 23, 2018
Public safety

Tally of 'stand your ground' cases rises as legislators rethink law

The controversial law that police have cited in their decision not to charge the man who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin has been invoked at least 130 times statewide since 2005.

A Tampa Bay Times survey, compiled from 31 Florida newspapers and public records, shows that the number of cases in which "stand your ground" has been invoked has climbed dramatically in the past year and a half. The analysis shows that police and prosecutors continue to apply the law unevenly.

As pressure mounts to charge George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who ignored police advice not to confront the unarmed teen on Feb. 26, Gov. Rick Scott announced he would convene a task force to study the law. No group keeps a tally of cases in which Florida Statute 776.013 (3) — commonly known as the "stand your ground" law — is invoked.

The law expands a citizen's right to use deadly force anywhere that he has a right to be if he "reasonably believes" it is necessary to stop another person from killing or hurting him badly.

The Times analysis shows that more than 70 percent of the 130 cases involved a fatality.

In the majority of the cases, the person who plunged the knife or swung the bat or pulled the trigger did not face a trial.

In 50 of the cases, the person who used force was never charged with a crime. Another nine defendants were granted immunity by a judge, and nine cases were dismissed.

In 10 cases, the defendant pleaded guilty to lesser crimes.

Of the 28 cases that made it to trial, 19 people were found guilty of a crime.

Twenty-two cases are still pending. (The outcomes of two could not be learned by press time.)

The Times analysis also shows that "stand your ground" is being invoked with greater frequency.

In the first five years the law was in effect, it was invoked 93 times. In the last year and a half, it has been invoked at least an additional 37 times.

"Justifiable homicides" reported to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement have increased threefold since the law went into effect.

Proponents say the law is working, allowing citizens to protect themselves from harm without worrying about legalities in the heat of the attack.

But the law has also been used to excuse killings in bar brawls, gang shootouts and road-rage incidents.

And if history serves, it's no wonder Zimmerman has not been arrested. Depending on how a police chief, prosecutor or judge interprets the law, which asks them to consider something as nebulous as a man's state of mind, they may find that under the law Zimmerman was justified in shooting young Martin.

At Wednesday's town hall meeting in Sanford, where more than 400 people sat inside the Allen Chapel AME Church and another 200 or more rallied outside, state Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said repealing the "stand your ground" law would be a top priority for the Legislature's black caucus.

"What about Trayvon's right to stand his ground and defend himself?" she asked. "How do you claim self-defense when you're in an SUV and you pursue a person on foot? How did Trayvon provoke an attack when he was running away?"

The problem that often hamstrings police and prosecutors is that there are often no witnesses. Two people meet in the dark, one of them kills the other, and the narrative of what happened solely belongs to the person interested in staying out of jail, the analysis shows.

When Arthur Hayhoe, executive director of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, heard about the Martin case, "I went to my files and yanked out all the ones like it," he said. "I found 15."

Among them was a 2010 incident in Town 'N Country in which a man on a jog about 1 a.m. was punched in the face by a teenager. The man thought he was being robbed so he pulled a gun, and the teen started to run. The man fired eight shots. Four hit the teen. The man was not charged with a crime. His court file says "justifiable homicide."

In the Tampa Bay area, the law has been invoked 31 times. Hills­borough County leads the state with 14 such cases.

Several cases have prompted much controversy, including an incident in which a man who stabbed another with an ice pick was cleared of wrongdoing and one in which a man who legally carried a gun to a neighborhood park to shoo away a skateboarder shot and killed a man who confronted him. That case is pending.

Police chiefs and prosecutors have decried the law for years, but it wasn't until the Martin shooting that notable Republicans, including the bill's author, Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, have said the law may need to be reconsidered.

"As far as I'm concerned, that neighborhood watch guy was breaking that law as soon as he started following that kid. He was stalking him. That's not standing your ground," said Rep. Richard "Rich" Glorioso, R-Plant City, who voted for the bill. "If the law is applied right, it's a fine law. But we worried about how people would interpret it, and how it would be applied, when we were discussing it."

Therein lies the problem.

The analysis shows the law is being unevenly applied across the state. A case that's dropped in Tampa might make it to a jury trial in Miami.

Hayhoe said the Martin case shows a clear need for reconsideration.

He's surprised it hasn't happened earlier.

"Most of these cases don't go beyond the local paper," he said. The Martin case is different.

"There's been more dialogue in the last three days than we've gotten for seven years," he said.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] Investigations editor Chris Davis, staff writer Lane DeGregory and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

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