Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe made a reasonable decision to charge Michael Drejka with manslaughter in last month's deadly Clearwater convenience store parking lot confrontation. The shooting, which erupted over use of a handicap parking space, took the life of Markeis McGlockton, a father of three, and shocked the community. But prosecutors still will have a high hurdle to overcome in showing that Drejka is not immune under Florida's stand your ground law, which leaves too much chance for unwarranted killings to go unpunished. It's a case study in why stand your ground has to go.
Drejka, 48, first confronted McGlockton's girlfriend as she sat in her car at the Circle A Food Store on July 19, parked in a handicap space. Drejka was questioning why Britany Jacobs was using the space when McGlockton, 28, who was inside the store with his 5-year-old son, saw the argument and walked outside.
Surveillance video from the parking lot shows McGlockton approaching Drejka and pushing him to the ground. Drejka then pulls a gun and shoots McGlockton, who stumbles backward. Drejka told deputies after the incident that he was in fear of being attacked again — a key element of the stand your ground law, which eliminated any duty to retreat and allows people to use deadly force if they fear great bodily harm. But who's to say whether Drejka believed he was in real danger or if he recklessly fired a deadly shot at someone who was backing away and was no longer a threat?
That's a question Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri tried to answer and reached a different conclusion. Gualtieri cited the stand your ground law in opting not to arrest Drejka, though he said Monday he supports McCabe's decision to bring a manslaughter charge. That's how the system should work, but it also underscores the problems with the law that two veteran law enforcement officials, both of whom hold law degrees, could look at the same evidence and come to opposite conclusions.
Before a jury ever hears the evidence against Drejka, he will be entitled to an immunity hearing if he claims self-defense in the case. Last year, the Legislature amended the stand your ground law and made it even more insidious, flipping the burden of proof in such hearings to the prosecution. Now the state must show with "clear and convincing evidence" why a person should not be immune — instead of requiring a defendant who has killed someone to show why he shouldn't have to stand trial. That's both backward and dangerous.
Monday's decision to bring a criminal case against Drejka is a positive step that will allow the public to see all the evidence and hear both sides of what led to McGlockton's death. Like all criminal defendants, Drejka is entitled to a presumption of innocence and a fair process. But the process in Florida, as it stands now, has been tilted out of balance and needs correcting. Lawmakers should start by scrapping the stand your ground law.