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Judge rules new 'stand your ground' law can apply in case of slain ex-USF football player

Randolph Graham
Randolph Graham
Published Jul. 6, 2017

TAMPA — Prosecutors in a murder case must prove that defendant Randolph Graham was not acting in self-defense in the fatal 2015 stabbing of a former University of South Florida football player, a Hillsborough circuit judge ruled Wednesday.

Graham can argue that he should be immune from prosecution under a newly revised "stand your ground" law for the death of Elkino Watson outside an Ybor City nightclub, Senior Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett decided.

A "stand your ground" hearing, similar to a trial and complete with witness testimony and presentation of evidence, has been scheduled for Aug. 29 and 30.

After listening to arguments from a prosecutor and defense attorney for Graham, the judge ruled that recent changes to the controversial self-defense law can be applied retroactively to Graham's case.

Florida law says that a person has no duty to retreat when faced with a violent confrontation and can use deadly force if he or she fears great bodily harm or death.

The defense has been on the books in Florida since 2005, but this spring the state Legislature tweaked it, shifting the burden of proof to the prosecution. Previously, it was up to the defense to prove that immunity applied. It's now up to prosecutors to prove that it does not.

Assistant State Attorney Sheri Maxim argued Wednesday that the change to the law is "substantive," meaning it affects individual rights and responsibilities. A substantive change can only apply to future cases, she said.

But Assistant Public Defender Mike Peacock asserted the opposite. He said the changes are "procedural," meaning they deal with the procedures courts use to enforce laws. Such changes can be applied retroactively, he said.

"The meat of the statute has not changed at all," Peacock said. "All that has occurred here is that the Legislature, within their power, has made the determination that they want the burden of proof to rest not with the defendant; they want it to rest with the government."

In her arguments, Maxim notes a Miami-Dade circuit judge's ruling last week that the new "stand your ground" law is unconstitutional. In that case, the judge found that the changes to the law were procedural, but that such changes are the business of the state Supreme Court, not the Legislature.

The prosecutor asked that if Padgett found the changes to be procedural, that he also declare the new law unconstitutional. But Padgett did not.

The case against Graham will move forward with the state now tasked with proving that he did not act in self-defense. He is charged with second-degree murder in Watson's 2015 stabbing death.

The state says the two were involved in a brawl early one morning outside the Orpheum nightclub in Ybor City. During the fight, Graham pulled a knife and stabbed Watson, prosecutors said. Watson later died.

Graham's defense says that Watson had "a significant height and weight advantage" and that Graham "was forced to act" to prevent harm to himself and his friends.

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.