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<i><b>'Stand your</b></i><i><b> ground': A killer defense?</b></i>

Published Mar. 18, 2012

A teenage boy lies dead, face down on the ground. A neighborhood watch volunteer stands nearby with a gun sticking out of his waistband.

This is where the story begins. In a small town outside of Orlando on a rainy Sunday evening in late February. It is a story about race. About justice. About perceptions and police procedures.

And before it is all over, it will be another story about Florida's 6-year-old law known as "stand your ground.''

Hardly a week goes by in this state without some mention of the law that essentially says citizens have no obligation to retreat in the face of danger, and are permitted to use deadly force, if necessary, to defend themselves.

Even now, a circuit judge in Hillsborough County is awaiting written arguments before deciding whether a Valrico man should stand trial for killing his neighbor in an argument over a skateboarder. A Tampa tow company owner was recently convicted of manslaughter after initially mounting a "stand your ground'' defense.

If you go by Florida Department of Law Enforcement numbers, justifiable homicide rates have tripled since the law went into effect in late 2005.

"It's crazy. It's insanity,'' said Willie Meggs, the state attorney in Tallahassee who has encountered the defense several times in recent years. "Stand your ground is the dumbest law ever put on the books.''

Yet, to others, the law makes perfect sense. Why shouldn't we be allowed to protect ourselves or our families? Why should we retreat? Why should we be victims? All of which sounds very For-the-People and Second Amendment-ish, but the reality is folks have always had the right to defend themselves. What this law did was remove any responsibility to walk away from a confrontation.

The problem is, in the process it may have emboldened Floridians with a dangerous sense of immunity. And it may have created a gaping loophole that allows someone to provoke a confrontation and then kill in the name of self-defense.

And that's what some suspect happened on Feb. 26 in Sanford.

Trayvon Martin, who was black, was visiting his father's fiancee in a gated community in the small town east of Orlando. During halftime of the NBA All-Star Game, the high school junior walked to a nearby convenience store for snacks.

While walking home, he was spotted by George Zimmerman, the 28-year-old white captain of a neighborhood crime-watch group. Zimmerman, while in his car, called police to report a suspicious person.

On the call, Zimmerman says Martin is staring at houses and walking aimlessly in the rain. He says the neighborhood has had some recent burglaries and laments "these a------- always get away.'' At some point, Zimmerman says Martin has started running. When Zimmerman says he is following, the dispatcher tells him not to do that.

The dispatcher says help is on the way, and the call ends.

In the next several minutes, a handful of residents call 911 to report someone yelling for help. In some of the calls, a voice in the background can be heard in what appears to be a desperate cry.

By the time police arrived, Martin was dead from a gunshot wound to the chest.

Zimmerman, who outweighed the teenager by close to 100 pounds, had a bloody nose and an explanation of self-defense.

Sanford police did not arrest him, and have turned the investigation over to the State Attorney's Office.

"No witnesses, two people and one of them is dead,'' said Robert Batey, a professor at Stetson Law School, speaking in general terms of a case such as this. "And the person who survives is going to have a strong incentive to shape the story to his benefit.''

So Trayvon Martin was not armed, was doing nothing wrong, and was killed by a man following him with a gun. And there is a chance no crime was committed.

If Zimmerman claims it was Martin who attacked him, then he was justified in killing the teenager if he believed he was in danger of severe injury or death.

Think of the implications in that kind of a scenario. If one person successfully provokes another into an attack, the first person can kill with impunity.

Clearwater attorney Stephen Romine, who has successfully argued the "stand your ground'' defense in the past, agrees there is a potential for abuse in the law. But he says that possibility has always existed in self-defense cases.

"I don't think that potential makes 'stand your ground' a bad law,'' Romine said. "It's just another law that is subject to abuse if somebody is willing to lie.''

The key, Romine says, is the forensic evidence and whether it backs up the survivor's story.

In this case, there will also be questions of whether Zimmerman had reason to consider Martin to be suspicious, whether he showed poor judgment in not following the dispatcher's instructions and whether he was the aggressor.

While the State Attorney's Office investigation is expected to take several more weeks, African-American groups are turning up the heat, suggesting Martin was targeted because he was black and police are protecting Zimmerman for the same reason. The Sanford police chief has not distinguished himself nor his department with his explanations.

The "stand your ground'' defense may ultimately determine Zimmerman's fate, but we may never know whether its mere existence played a role in the choices he made.

All we know for sure is George Zimmerman was legally carrying a gun, and his suspicions set the chain of events in motion.

Trayvon Martin, meanwhile, is dead.

And all he was carrying was a bag of Skittles.

John Romano can be reached at romano@tampabay.com.

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