Tavarious China Smith was not particularly lucky. A small-time drug dealer in Manatee County, Smith sold crack and marijuana not once, not twice, but three times to undercover cops.
But in one respect, Smith, 29, hit the jackpot.
On two occasions, more than two years apart, he committed homicides but was not charged thanks to provisions of Florida's "stand your ground" law. Smith claimed self-defense in both cases and prosecutors agreed. He never faced a judge or jury for fatally shooting Nikita Williams, 18, in February 2008 in a drug-related incident or Breon Mitchell, Williams' 23-year-old half-brother, in December 2010.
Smith's only punishment stemmed from using a gun to kill Mitchell. Since he was by then a felon, convicted on drug charges, Smith wasn't allowed to carry the Ruger .357 Magnum he used to shoot Mitchell outside a Palmetto nightclub in 2010. In January, a federal judge in Tampa sent Smith to prison after he pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm.
The state's expanded self-defense laws have come under scrutiny since the fatal shooting in February in Sanford of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer. A task force appointed by the governor is reviewing whether the 2005 law is being applied correctly.
Prosecutors say it has too often been used to protect gang members and drug dealers in shoot-outs. Although it does not apply if the defendant is committing a crime, the law does not define criminal activity and courts have differed on their interpretations of the statute. As a Times database of nearly 200 "stand your ground" cases shows, simply being a felon in possession of a gun or a drug dealer has not prevented defendants from successfully invoking the law.
Arthur Brown is the assistant state attorney in Manatee County who reviewed both of Smith's homicides and declined to prosecute Smith in the Mitchell case. He said both were clear-cut cases of self-defense and that provisions of the "stand your ground" law only strengthened Smith's claims.
"I agree this was probably not the class of people lawmakers were trying to protect when they wrote this law," Brown said. "But the law provides a larger umbrella than simply the homeowner that's protecting his house."
• • •
Rubonia is a bend in the road on the southeastern edge of Tampa Bay. The unofficial center of the tiny working-class community is the 7200 block of Bayshore Road, where a weathered general store is backed by the concrete block Rubonia Social Club and weed-pocked lots.
Smith, who lived with his mother in Palmetto, was there almost every day, perched on a concrete stoop or watching the traffic while leaning on an ice machine. According to police reports, it's also where he pursued his drug business, selling rock cocaine and marijuana at $20 a pop.
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On a Thursday in early February, 2008, Smith was hanging with about a dozen people when he got word that two "long hairs" — guys with dreadlocks — were looking for him. A few weeks earlier, the same two men — Nikita Williams and his younger brother Ben Johnson, 17, — demanded Smith pay them 10 percent of the profit Smith made on drug sales in Rubonia. Smith ignored their threats but armed himself with a .380 caliber handgun.
Smith had a history of misdemeanors for drug possession and violation of parole. Unbeknownst to him, he had also recently gotten caught in an undercover narcotics operation, selling crack and marijuana to officers on two occasions, both near the store in Rubonia; an arrest warrant was pending while the operation continued. "I sell 20 rocks a day," Smith later bragged to police.
Williams had been arrested for shoplifting and resisting arrest. His younger brother was wanted on a warrant from North Carolina for armed robbery. The two brothers also had been accused a few months earlier of burglarizing and shooting up the apartment of a woman who had taken them in.
On this night — Feb. 7 — the younger men pulled in front of the store just before 9 p.m. in a borrowed car and walked in opposite directions toward the rear where Smith was standing. Shots were fired. Williams fell to a concrete slab in an adjoining lot with a bullet wound to the chest from Smith's gun. Smith then chased the younger brother, who jumped in a nearby Cadillac and tried to hide. A bystander who knew both men from coaching youth sports teams coaxed Smith into backing off and letting Johnson escape. Smith shot a round off in the air as he stalked off, according to a witness.
The next day Smith turned himself in to police, saying he had shot in self-defense; he also led them to the retention pond in Bradenton where he had tossed his gun.
Smith told investigators that he saw the younger brother creeping around the corner, while Williams walked up out of the darkness and pulled a gun on him. "I hear the shot. I panic, I shoot," Smith said. "I ain't out here to hurt nobody. I'm here to support my family."
The Manatee sheriff's investigation was hampered by the lack of reliable witnesses. One man who claimed he saw the shooting admitted he was so wasted he was drooling. Though Smith's account that he was fired on first was disputed by the surviving brother, a loaded revolver was found near the victim. Ultimately, the state attorney declined to press charges against Smith, citing "stand your ground" laws.
After interviewing Smith, police gave him the news about the pending drug warrant. It hardly slowed him down. Less than three weeks later, while free on bail on the drug charges, Smith was back dealing in Rubonia. According to the undercover officer's affidavit, Smith "waved us down," and sold him a bag of marijuana for $20.
The following October, Smith pleaded no contest to the drug charges and was sentenced to three years in state prison. It was the same month Johnson, the surviving brother, was sentenced to a 10-year term at a different state facility on prior home invasion and robbery charges.
• • •
The first hint that there would be retaliation for Nikita Williams' death came just three days after the 2008 shooting. Two men dressed in black firebombed a duplex in Palmetto in the predawn hours, then shot at the residents — three women and two children — when they tried to escape. The victims were unrelated to Smith, but he had a relative who lived nearby. Police and the public speculated the attack could be tied to the Rubonia shooting, though Williams' brother denied any knowledge of the incident.
There was no disputing the retaliatory nature of the incident on Dec. 19, 2010. Less than three months after Smith was released from prison, he was in a parking lot across from the Club Elite in Palmetto with a friend. It was about 2:30 a.m.
Mitchell, who had been in jail when his half-brother was killed in 2008, approached Smith, pulling a black T-shirt over his face. Mitchell then allegedly fired several shots, hitting Smith in the right forearm. Smith, who had a .357 Magnum, ran across the street toward the nightclub, then fired a couple of shots at Mitchell, who was running away. Smith told police he chased Mitchell, stopped to take aim and fired additional shots. He heard Mitchell scream.
Spotting a police car, Smith took off running between houses and hid his gun under a trash can. Mitchell, meanwhile, dropped on his back in the parking lot across from the Club Elite. A gun and spent shell casings were found nearby. Mitchell was flown to Bayfront Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead from a gunshot to the chest.
Police interviewed Smith later that morning at Sarasota Memorial Hospital and arrested him on charges of murder and possession of a firearm by a felon.
"Although Smith was shot at initially, he did take possession of a firearm and 'chase' Breon (Mitchell) so that he could shoot him," the police report said. "Chasing a subject in order to shoot and kill them goes beyond defending one's self."
But less than a month later, the State Attorney's Office dropped the murder charges against Smith. The prosecutor said the state was unable to disprove that Smith had acted in self-defense.
"There's no question that Smith was shot at first, that his ride had taken off so his most likely means of escape was gone and that the pistol Breon was firing at him has 10 rounds," Brown said of the gunfight, which took less than a minute. "A reasonable person could see that danger was still present when he (Smith) was firing back."
Brown said the victim's family was understandably upset by the state's decision.
"As I recall the family was aggrieved," Brown said of the victim, who had served time in state prison for cocaine possession and carrying a concealed weapon. "But there was no dispute that Mitchell had initiated the aggression."
Dee White, maternal grandmother to Smith's victims, said of the incidents: "I do not know what happened because I was not there, but in the end, God will take care of it."
• • •
Smith's repeated success at claiming "stand your ground" didn't go unnoticed.
William Waldron retired in August 2010 after nearly a decade as a homicide detective with the Manatee Sheriff's Office and was familiar with the handling of both incidents. Now running against the incumbent, W. Brad Steube, for sheriff in an August primary, Waldron said cases like Smith's create a sense that there's no accountability for criminals.
"A lot of the comments on news articles about the incident called for China (Smith) to be charged and let a jury decide," said Waldron, who believes Smith should have been indicted on manslaughter charges in the second homicide. "It helps perpetuate a feeling that you can't trust law enforcement because it lets people get away with murder, so they need to take matters into their own hands."
Cory Brinson, pastor at Palmetto's Spiritual House of Praise, said the double homicides show the snowball effect of retaliation. Though Smith is a distant cousin, Brinson said if authorities had arrested Smith quickly on the drug charges, the homicides never would have happened.
"We need to get these guys off the street," said Brinson, who said when criminals act with impunity, it scares law-abiding people into silence. "We really need people to 'stand your ground' for a decent society so their children can grow up without having to look over their shoulders."
Though state prosecutors were pursuing a case that could have landed Smith a maximum of 15 years in prison for being a felon in possession of a firearm, eight months after the Club Elite shooting, they yielded to federal officials.
A note in the state attorney's file said Smith would face up to 9 1/2 years on similar federal charges. "If he cooperates on unsolved homicides (6-7 yrs)," the handwritten note adds.
Smith, who had been free on $15,000 bail, was picked up on the federal charges in September. It wasn't hard for police to find him. He was in the crowd at the scene of a drive-by shooting, still unsolved, which left two dead and 22 wounded at the Club Elite.
Smith is now serving a seven-year term at Beckley Federal Correctional Institution in West Virginia. He is scheduled to be released in September 2017.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at (727) 892-2996 or firstname.lastname@example.org.