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Lawmaker who pushed to strengthen stand your ground says it doesn’t apply to Michael Drejka

Republican Sens. Wilton Simpson and Jeff Brandes co-sponsored legislation that shifted the burden of proof from the defense to the prosecution in stand your ground pretrial hearings. But what does that mean?
SCOTT KEELER | Times
Senator Wilton Simpson, R- Trilby, talks with Senator Jeff Brandes, R, St. Petersburg on the Senate floor in 2017.
SCOTT KEELER | Times Senator Wilton Simpson, R- Trilby, talks with Senator Jeff Brandes, R, St. Petersburg on the Senate floor in 2017.
Published Aug. 23, 2018|Updated Aug. 24, 2018

Jeff Brandes, a Republican state senator who had a central role in revising Florida's stand your ground law in 2017, said the statute should not apply in the recent high-profile Clearwater killing of Markeis McGlockton.

During the 2017 legislative session, Tampa Bay-area senators Brandes, R-St. Petersburg and Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, co-sponsored SB 128, which shifted the burden of proof from the defendant to the state in pretrial stand your ground hearings. That change could come into play in the defense of Michael Drejka, the man charged with first-degree manslaughter of McGlockton.

Prosecutors, with the change, now will have to clear a slightly higher bar should Drejka invoke stand your ground in his defense.

Yet both Brandes and Simpson say the bill they championed, which had as its main sponsor Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, shouldn't affect the outcome of the Drejka case.

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"I know for a fact that the shooter in this case and the victim in this case will receive fair justice," Simpson said in a phone interview, noting he has "complete confidence" in law enforcement to see the case through.

Brandes said even if prosecutors have to clear a higher threshold to prove stand your ground shouldn't apply to Drejka, the evidence is so overwhelming they should have no problem doing so.

RELATED COVERAGE: Why video makes this Florida stand your ground debate different

Since SB 128 became law, prosecutors have had to provide "clear and convincing evidence" that a defendant like Drejka should not get to invoke stand your ground — Florida's controversial self-defense statute that says a person who fears for his life has no obligation to try to escape his attacker before responding with force. If the state can't prove Drejka shouldn't be protected under stand your ground, a judge can dismiss his case before it ever sees a jury.

The distinction between making a defendant prove he is protected under stand your ground and forcing the state to do so may not seem like a large one. But at the time SB 128 was being discussed in the Legislature, State Attorney Phil Archer argued that changing the law would allow defense attorneys a "complete preview of the state's case in a non-jury trial."

"I am a proud member of the NRA. Lifetime member. I teach stand your ground at a concealed weapons class every month," Archer said during a February 2017 hearing of the Senate Rules Committee, which members Simpson and Brandes both attended. "Stand your ground is a great law. This goes too far."

SB 128 easily cleared the Rules Committee and both legislative chambers along mostly partisan lines. Tampa Bay-area Republican state senators Tom Lee, Bill Galvano and Dana Young also voted for the bill. Democrat Darryl Rouson voted against it.

READ OUR 2017 COVERAGE OF SB 128: Changes to Florida's 'stand your ground' law on track to pass

Florida Republicans have been somewhat loathe to discuss stand your ground in the weeks since McGlockton's killing. Democrats initially called on Gov. Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency to suspend the law, but Scott's office has said it is up to the Legislature to repeal it. A call for a special session on stand your ground went down in flames earlier this month, with Brandes and Simpson voting against it*.

RELATED COVERAGE: The Florida Legislature rejected a call for a special session. Here's how Tampa Bay lawmakers voted. 

Brandes, in his first remarks to the Times about the case, said he does not believe Drejka should receive the protections of stand your ground.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri initially disagreed, declining to press charges against Drejka in July because, he said, the case fell "within the bookends of stand your ground."

When asked whether SB 128 influenced his decision not to initially charge Drejka, Gualtieri said he wouldn't comment on the specifics of the case until it had worked its way through the courts. But he noted he supported the change — and stand your ground in general.

"Is the totality of the package, meaning the totality of the stand your ground law perfect? No, but no laws are," Gualtieri said.

Video of the confrontation between Drejka and McGlockton filmed outside of a Clearwater convenience store shows Drejka gesturing toward McGlockton's girlfriend, Brittany Jacobs, who was parked in a handicap spot. McGlockton exits the convenience store, walks toward Drejka and shoves him to the ground. From the ground, Drejka pulls out a gun and shoots McGlockton, fatally wounding him.

Three weeks after Gualtieri's July announcement, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said his office would charge Drejka with first-degree manslaughter.

Brandes said he agreed with that decision, but he still supports SB 128 because the right to self defense is a key part of the justice system.

"The state should have to prove that you were acting outside of stand your ground," Brandes said. "I think everything pivots on the ability to defend yourself."

*Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly said that Simpson did not vote on the question of whether to hold a stand your ground special election. He voted no.

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