The shooting death of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman has focused attention on Florida's 2005 "stand your ground" law and the case of James Workman that started it all. It turns out that Workman's fatal shooting of a man in 2004 was misconstrued when legislators used it to justify this marked expansion of the so-called "castle doctrine." That shooting was deemed justified under the law at the time, and the overreaction by the Legislature demonstrates the pitfalls of legislating by anecdote — particularly one that is exaggerated.
The events that led up to Workman shooting and killing Rodney Cox were detailed Sunday by Tampa Bay Times staff writer Ben Montgomery. It happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan. Workman and his wife, Kathryn, were in an RV outside their hurricane-damaged home in Pensacola when Cox came on their property in the early-morning darkness. Cox appears to have been suffering from erratic behavior and wasn't there to commit burglary. But when he showed up on the Workmans' property, James Workman went outside with a handgun to confront the intruder, firing a warning shot into the ground. Cox then ran into the couple's trailer and put James Workman in a bear hug after the homeowner pursued him. That's when James Workman shot Cox twice and killed him. Three months later, the state attorney ruled the shooting justified and no charges were ever brought. James Workman never hired an attorney.
Florida law at the time considered it justifiable homicide to kill an intruder on one's property without first having to attempt to retreat from the scene. But the NRA wanted the "castle doctrine" broadened to apply to any situation, in any location, where a person was reasonably put in fear of their life. Workman's case was used to demonstrate the need for that expansion, even though he and his wife had been on their own property at the time of the shooting. During the bill's consideration, supporters routinely got the facts wrong — claiming Workman had to hire a lawyer to clear his name and other inaccuracies. But on the power of that exaggerated story and the NRA's substantial clout, the law passed in 2005 with overwhelming support.
Lawmakers will often use a single case or their own experiences as a basis for promoting sweeping changes to state law. For instance, in 2010 then-House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, pushed for a law that would have prohibited public release of 911 recordings because a friend had a son who died from an overdose and didn't want the tapes released. Cases like the death of 2-year-old Caylee Anthony often prompt legislative responses, even if little further study is done. Caylee's mother was acquitted of her murder but convicted of lying to investigators. This led lawmakers to increase from one year to five years the maximum sentence for lying about a missing child. Florida's "stand your ground" law is another example of legislative overreaction to one specific instance. That leads to unintended consequences, and it's no way to run the nation's fourth-largest state.