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State will use newspaper's analysis for 'stand your ground' review

The elected official in charge of reviewing Florida's "stand your ground" law says legislators might need to make changes to ensure that the law is applied "fairly and equally.''

Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll made the statement in response to a Tampa Bay Times analysis of nearly 200 "stand your ground'' cases that showed widespread confusion and disparities in the way the law is being implemented.

Carroll said the task force will use the data collected by the Times as it considers possible recommendations for next year's legislative session.

The group's organizational session last month lasted 10 hours and raised what Carroll called "many, many questions'' about the law, which was passed in 2005 and eliminated the "duty to retreat'' in self-defense cases.

"When we heard from sheriffs, they had problems, and when we heard from defense and prosecuting attorneys, they had problems,'' Carroll said. "From judges, we heard that there have been cases we need to look at and get an understanding of how the courts have ruled.''

However, Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who sponsored the law, said Monday that it is "premature'' to suggest changes are needed.

"I think there's more data to come about the positive aspects of the statute as it exists,'' Baxley said, noting that the law has helped people who were legitimately defending themselves. "It's hard to do with a fairly small universe of cases to make a lot of judgments about what's there.''

Following controversy over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, by George Zimmerman, the Times compiled the most extensive database so far of "stand your ground'' cases. It includes the races of victims and defendants and the circumstances under which people have been killed or injured.

Stories published Sunday and Monday revealed that the law has allowed drug dealers to avoid murder charges and gang members to walk free. Though the Times found no obvious racial bias in how black and white defendants were treated overall, people who killed a black person were more likely to walk free than those who killed a white person.

Carroll's task force, appointed by Gov. Rick Scott, includes two sheriffs, a former state Supreme Court justice, defense and prosecuting attorneys and a neighborhood watch volunteer.

The first regular meeting of the task force will be held June 12 in Longwood, not far from Sanford and the scene of the February shooting that sparked international outrage and led to Zimmerman's eventual arrest on a second-degree murder charge.

Gathering information for the panel will be three law students working with professor Michael Seigel, director of the University of Florida's Criminal Justice Center. He said the students will "piggy-back'' on the Times' research.

In reading the Times' stories, "what jumped out at me was how things you were covering are things that we have been asked to look at by the task force, for example the issues of race,'' Seigel said Monday.

Seigel said he was not surprised that police and others responsible for implementing the law are finding many ambiguities.

Judges have issued contradictory rulings in similar cases that have sent one defendant to prison while setting another free, the Times investigation found. Still unresolved are key legal interpretations of the law, including whether a defendant can get immunity from prosecution if he illegally had a gun. Courts are also divided on what the law is when a victim is retreating.

"When a new law comes in, it takes a long time to get a settled interpretation,'' Seigel said. "But to say it's always more messy than we expect isn't to say it's not worth trying to clean up in critical aspects.''

Former state Rep. Dan Gelber of Miami said he was struck by the Times' finding that similar "stand your ground" cases have resulted in dramatically different outcomes because that was something he feared when he voted against the law in 2005.

"You don't want disparate outcomes because then justice itself is being impaired,'' he said.

Gelber, a Democrat, said removing the duty to retreat made it more difficult for juries to fix blame in complicated self-defense cases.

"When you say there's no obligation to de-escalate a confrontation, that people can go at it, it becomes impossible for judges or juries to decide who should be responsible," Gelber said. "And in a state as armed as Florida, the outcomes were not unpredictable."

Starting with its June 12 meeting, the task force will hold several sessions around the state to collect testimony. Among possible recommendations is better monitoring of "stand your ground' cases to determine who is using the law and which races and ethnic groups it affects. The Times reported that no one is keeping track of such cases, making it almost impossible to assess the law's impact.

"I think what's important is, do we have fairness and equal application for all races, creeds and colors?'' Carroll said.

Baxley, the law's author, agreed that there's been a "real challenge'' in getting comprehensive data that doesn't mix "apples and oranges.''

But, he added, "I think we just need to be cautious about jumping to a policy shift before we're clear about what it is we're trying to accomplish.''

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Kris Hundley can be reached at khundley@tampbay.com or (727) 892-2996.

State will use newspaper's analysis for 'stand your ground' review 06/04/12 [Last modified: Sunday, February 17, 2013 2:12pm]
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