LARGO — Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri doubled down Tuesday on his interpretation that Florida's "stand your ground" law precluded him from arresting Michael Drejka in the shooting death of Markeis McGlockton while emphasizing that his decision is only the first stop of a long process.
Gualtieri stood alone at the lectern during a news conference he said was originally supposed to be alongside local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Ministerial Alliance. The Upper Pinellas chapters backed out at the last minute, Gualtieri told reporters, before continuing prepared remarks on his own.
"Picture a bus route with a bunch of different stops, and this is the first stop," said Gualtieri, who is also a lawyer. "I make a decision about arrest. The state attorney makes a decision about charges. That's our system."
He later said he spoke with State Attorney Bernie McCabe before announcing his decision not to arrest but did not elaborate. He expects to send the case to McCabe's office this week.
Tuesday marked Gualtieri's first public appearance since his announcement July 20 that his agency would not arrest Drejka. Since then, the case has reignited a national debate over the controversial self-defense law. Some experts have defended Gualtieri's decision, while others have said, including in an article on the news website Politico, that he's interpreting the law incorrectly.
Both organizations pointed to the Politico story in statements released after Tuesday's news conference. NAACP President Marva McWhite said the organization was encouraged by the reporting. The statement does not say whether they had initially planned to participate in the news conference or, if so, why they backed out.
"We have no intentions of standing with the sheriff on this issue," she said. "We have from the onset called for an arrest, we have never wavered, and we will continue to demand justice."
Ministerial Alliance President Pastor Carlton Childs said a statement by NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer in the story, which published Monday, "made us give pause" about continuing with the conference.
"Nothing in either the 2005 law or in the 2017 law prohibits a sheriff from making an arrest in a case where a person claims self-defense if there is probable cause that the use of force was unlawful," Hammer said, according to the Politico story.
Hammer told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday her comments were "directed to what the law says" and not specific to McGlockton's case.
"We do not comment on an ongoing case because we don't know what we don't know," she said.
Gualtieri said Tuesday that he doesn't dispute her statement to Politico. But the issue is that there was no probable cause to arrest Drejka because "he reasonably believed that serious bodily injury was imminent," the sheriff said, which provides him immunity from arrest under the "stand your ground law."
The sheriff at times expressed frustration that the case "has gotten twisted around in so many ways." He acknowledged that if he could change anything about his first news conference, he would have made it clearer that he was not the final decision-maker.
The fact that it's being interpreted so differently, he said, underscores why he didn't arrest Drejka, reminding reporters that he has seen evidence the public hasn't. In order to make an arrest, the facts of the case would have to clearly show "stand your ground" doesn't apply, he said, which isn't the case with Drejka.
Otherwise, he said, there would be "somebody who's a citizen whose claiming that they acted in conformity with the law, and they acted under the 'stand your ground' statute, sitting in jail for weeks or months or however long it is when it's something that is extremely complicated."
"The easy thing in some respects would have been for me to arrest Drejka and kick it to the state attorney," he said. "I've never done anything bc it's the easy way or what some might call the politically expedient thing to do, and I'm not going to start doing it today."
Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or email@example.com. Follow @kathrynvarn.