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'Stand your ground' law protects those who go far beyond that point

Published Jun. 17, 2012

The men responsible for Florida's controversial "stand your ground'' law are certain about one thing: Because of his actions before he pulled the trigger and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman is not protected from criminal prosecution.

Because Zimmerman exited his vehicle, because he followed Martin, because his actions put him in a situation where he felt it necessary to shoot a boy dead, he should be booked, jailed and forced to face a jury of his peers.

Said Durell Peaden, the former Republican senator from Crestview who sponsored the bill: "The guy lost his defense right then. When he said, 'I'm following him,' he lost his defense."

Said Jeb Bush, the governor who signed the bill into law: "Stand your ground means stand your ground. It doesn't mean chase after somebody who's turned their back."

But they are wrong.

Since its passage in 2005, the "stand your ground'' law has protected people who have pursued another, initiated a confrontation and then used deadly force to defend themselves. Citing the law, judges have granted immunity to killers who put themselves in danger, so long as their pursuit was not criminal, so long as the person using force had a right to be there, and so long as he could convince the judge he was in fear of great danger or death.

The Tampa Bay Times has identified 140 cases across the state in which "stand your ground'' has been invoked, and many involve defendants whose lives were clearly in jeopardy. But at least a dozen share similarities with what we know about the Trayvon Martin case, and they show the law has not always worked as its sponsors say they intended.

Early morning, Jan. 25, 2011. Greyston Garcia was in his apartment in Miami when a roommate told him someone was stealing the radio from his truck.

Garcia grabbed a kitchen knife and ran outside. The burglar saw him coming, grabbed his bag of stolen radios and fled.

Rather than calling the police, Garcia chased the thief down the street and caught up to him a block away. The confrontation lasted less than a minute and was captured on surveillance video. The thief swung the bag of radios at Garcia, who blocked the bag with his left hand and stabbed the thief in the chest with his right.

Pedro Roteta, 26, died in the street.

Those are the facts. You be the judge.

Florida statute 776.013(3) says: (a) person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

The old law required a person to use every reasonable means available to retreat before using deadly force, except when the person was in his or her home or place of work. "Stand your ground" expands that to any other place where he or she has a right to be.

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Should that be enough to protect Greyston Garcia from prosecution?

Does it help to know that a medical examiner testified that a blow from a 4- to 6-pound bag of metal to the head would cause great bodily harm, possibly even death? Does it change your mind to learn that police found a folding knife in the dead man's back pocket?

Does it matter that Garcia didn't call the police? That he went home and fell asleep? That he later sold the other stolen car stereos and hid the knife and denied killing anyone when police finally caught him?

The judge considered all those facts. In the end, she ruled that Garcia's use of force was justified. It didn't matter that he had chased the thief for a block with a knife in his hand.

All that mattered was what happened in those few seconds when the two men stood face to face.

"Mr. Zimmerman's unnecessary pursuit and confrontation of Trayvon Martin elevated the prospect of a violent episode and does not seem to be an act of self-defense as defined by the castle doctrine" wrote state Rep. Dennis Baxley, the Ocala Republican who co-authored the law, in a column March 21 for "There is no protection in the 'stand your ground' law for anyone who pursues and confronts people."

Lawyers say the bill's supporters are either uninformed or politically motivated.

"That's not what the law says," said Steven Romine, a Tampa Bay lawyer who has invoked "stand your ground" successfully. "They might think that in their own heads, but it's just not true.

"If you're doing something legal, no matter what the act is, and you're attacked, it's in that moment that you have a right to stand your ground."

Prosecutors, who are generally critical of the law, agree.

"The real issue is what happens around the 60 seconds prior to the shooting," said Ed Griffith, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, which brought the charges against Greyston Garcia. "Everything else has emotional content, but from a legal perspective, it all comes down to the 60 seconds before the incident."

One of Romine's cases is a prime example. In 2008, his client, Charles Podany, noticed a truck speeding past his house in Thonotosassa, where his children play in the front yard. Podany fetched his handgun and rode his bicycle down the street to the house where the truck was parked to get a license plate number.

He found himself in a confrontation with Casey Landes, 24, who had been a passenger in the truck. Landes, legally drunk, attacked the smaller Podany and wound up on top of him. Podany drew his weapon and fired twice. The second bullet entered Landes' left cheek and struck the back of his skull, killing him instantly.

Podany was charged with manslaughter. But before trial, a judge ruled that despite initiating the confrontation by arming himself and riding his bicycle to the speeder's house, Podany was in a place he had a legal right to be and he was carrying a weapon he had a legal right to carry. He found that Podany feared for his life and had the right to defend himself with deadly force.

"There is not an exception to the law that says if you're doing something stupid, or risky, or not in your best interest, that 'stand your ground' doesn't apply," Romine said.

In May, Carlos Catalan-Flores, 26, a security guard at a Tampa strip club called Flash Dancers, confronted men who were drinking beer in the parking lot. One of the men threw a beer bottle at Catalan-Flores' head and prepared to throw another. Rather than taking cover inside the club, or using his baton or pepper spray to protect himself, Catalan-Flores drew his weapon and began firing. Several of the six shots hit the man who threw the beer.

A judge ruled that Catalan-Flores was justified, even though he initiated the confrontation. Being hit by a beer bottle constitutes a forcible felony, so he had the right to shoot, to protect himself.

"Fundamentally, this law is in place to protect us from prosecution and to allow us to protect ourselves," said Catalan-Flores' attorney, Joe Caimano. "If somebody takes it to the extreme, it will come out in the investigation."

Some extreme cases have tested the law.

A man got into a shootout on a Sarasota street, for instance, killing a man who owed him money and endangering bystanders. But a judge granted him immunity because a witness testified that his rival had claimed he had "fire in his pocket" and threatened the shooter. Police found no weapon at the scene, but that didn't matter. What mattered was that the shooter believed his enemy had a weapon and was ready to use it.

The court has even ruled that the statute can protect someone who shoots a retreating person. In overturning a ruling against Jimmy Hair, who shot a man who was retreating from a fight, a judge in Tallahassee wrote that the statute "makes no exception from the immunity when the victim is in retreat at the time the defensive force is employed."

Prosecutors argue that these types of cases should be brought before a jury.

"Jurors understand self-defense," said Griffith, the spokesman in Miami. "That's really where it should be."

Nine days after Trayvon Martin was shot dead in Sanford, Brandon Baker, 30, and his twin brother were driving separate cars toward the apartment they shared in Palm Harbor.

Seth Browning, a 23-year-old security guard who later told deputies he was concerned with Baker's erratic driving, pulled in close behind Baker to get his license tag number.

Baker turned off East Lake Road, then onto an access road and came to a stop, according to Pinellas sheriff's investigators. Browning followed and stopped behind Baker's Chevy truck.

Baker climbed out of his truck and walked to Browning's window. His brother, Chris, watching from behind, said Baker was trying to figure out why Browning was tailgating him.

Browning sprayed Baker with pepper spray, then shot him in the chest. He told deputies that Baker had punched him and he was in fear for his life. Browning called police as Chris Baker tried to revive his brother.

His father, Kevin Lindsay, rushed to the scene and watched as Browning was questioned at length. Then he learned the man who killed his son was released.

Baker's parents had never heard of the "stand your ground" law. Waiting for some type of action has exhausted them. They long for justice in what appears to them to be a clearly unjustifiable killing.

"I always knew that the law would protect you if somebody broke into your home. Sure, you can protect yourself," said his stepmother, Alex Lindsay. "But why did they have to expand it to protect people who do things like this?"

Their friends and family are just as shocked when they learn Browning might not be charged.

"They're incredulous," Alex Lindsay said.

More than 500 people have signed their online petition to get "stand your ground" repealed.

"This case is being considered a 'stand your ground' case and should not be since Seth Browning was the sole 'AGGRESSOR' and 'CHOSE' to tailgate, pull over, pepper spray, and shoot and kill Brandon Baker," it says. "Seth Browning did NOT act out of self defense and should be prosecuted for killing Brandon Baker."

But if history serves, the pursuit may not matter. The case will hinge on what happened in the moments before Browning pulled the trigger, and whether he feared for his life. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gaultieri said this week that the case is still under investigation.

Baker's parents, like Martin's, are appalled that the law might protect the man who killed their son, and shocked that men who backed the law are saying they didn't know it could.

"Even if they had the best of intentions, they need to change this law," Alex Lindsay said. "They will never fully understand the repercussions of it."

"I don't wish this on anyone," said her husband. "And this is going to keep happening. It's going to happen to other families."

Times computer-assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg and staff writer Kris Hundley contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at or (727) 893-8650.


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