Sunday, June 17, 2018
Editorials

'Stand your ground' law needs a real review

The disappointing results from a task force that examined Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law are not a surprise. The 19-member panel commissioned by Gov. Rick Scott in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting was packed with the law's supporters, while critics were frozen out. The result — a report that recommends almost no changes to the law, despite overwhelming evidence of its systemic flaws — is not worthy of consideration. Florida's legislative leaders need to undertake a more thoughtful review themselves. This law is a menace that has allowed too many killers to walk free.

The review was prompted by a national firestorm that erupted after George Zimmerman, a Sanford neighborhood watch volunteer, shot dead Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, on Feb. 26 and was not arrested after claiming self-defense. Initially police cited "stand your ground," though Zimmerman was eventually charged with second-degree murder. But the episode put a spotlight on the 2005 law, pushed by the National Rifle Association, that gives legal immunity to people who use deadly force when they reasonably believe their life is in danger.

Unfortunately, the Florida Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection, headed by Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, wasn't much interested in fairly evaluating the law as her commission traveled the state holding seven public hearings and receiving thousands of comments from the public — including emotional testimonials by those whose loved ones were killed by people who went free under the law.

The report's essentially non-existent findings and sparse recommendations are a sad showing after all the input and indicate a lack of interest in truly evaluating the law's impact. After affirming its support for "stand your ground," the task force leaves it to the Legislature to tweak a few specific parts of the law, but little of substance.

Seven years of experience demonstrate the law is dangerous and gives legal cover to people prone to violence, including during road rage and gang shooting incidents. Nearly 60 percent of defendants who have invoked it, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis, had at least one arrest before they killed someone, raising questions about the law applying only to law-abiding people defending themselves. Since the law's passage in Florida, justifiable homicides increased 192 percent, according to FBI data, with other "stand your ground" states experiencing similar patterns.

Carroll claims the task force did "a very good, deliberate job," but it largely rejected suggestions from prosecutors, including fellow panelist Katherine Fernandez Rundle, Miami-Dade state attorney. Among other changes, Rundle wants the statute amended so that people who are the initial aggressor or those who initially provoke the use of force can't hide behind the law. The panel wasn't interested.

The task force didn't agree to eliminate the pretrial immunity hearing, an extra, unnecessary proceeding that the national Association of Prosecuting Attorneys suggested be dumped. It didn't address whether "stand your ground" applies when the victim is killed while fleeing. Courts have not ruled consistently. And it didn't recommend rigorous tracking of "stand your ground" cases, beyond some additional study to determine whether it's fairly applied.

This task force failed to do its job thoroughly or impartially. Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who sponsored the law and was on the task force, used the fact that Zimmerman was finally arrested as proof that the law works as intended. That kind of rationalization ignores the real impact of the law and infects the entire report. Incoming legislative leaders, who just saw their Republican majority curtailed by voters, owe it to their constituents to take up their own review of "stand your ground."

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