Editorial: Stand your ground delays justice

Published Sep. 15, 2017

So here's a simple question for Florida lawmakers: Who is looking out for the victims? Because we know the state has bent over backward to make sure residents who claim self-defense are not hindered by costly and upsetting delays in the criminal justice system. But what about the families of those who are killed? Now that the "stand your ground'' law has created a tricky new layer for prosecutors, who is looking out for the families left broken in the law's wake?

This is a legitimate concern when you consider the Wesley Chapel movie theater case. More than 44 months have passed since an unarmed man was shot and killed by a retired police officer, and there is still no trial in sight. Three years had already passed before the first hearing, where Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Barthle rejected Curtis Reeves' claim for immunity under the "stand your ground'' law. Now Reeves' lawyers are contemplating a second "stand your ground'' attempt based on retroactively applying recent revisions made to the law that shifted the burden of proof to prosecutors to show defendants do not deserve "stand your ground'' protection rather than requiring the defendant's lawyers to demonstrate the defendant deserves it.

It's not a stretch to imagine that Reeves' attorneys are stalling and delaying as long as they possibly can to protect their 75-year-old client from a potential prison sentence. The attorney for Nicole Oulson, the victim's widow, suggested as much recently. The cruel irony is that the original 2005 "stand your ground" law was intended to avoid lengthy delays precisely like this one. Except it was those invoking self-defense claims that legislators were trying to protect.

Lawmakers justified the "stand your ground'' law by citing incorrect facts from an obscure case. They pointed to the ordeal of a Panhandle retiree who killed a man in self-defense and then had to hire a lawyer and wait six months before prosecutors ruled he was justified. Except the retiree never did hire a lawyer. And prosecutors cleared him of any charges within three months of the shooting.

In essence, legislators cited a bogus story to justify an unnecessary law to fix a nonexistent problem. And if that wasn't bad enough, they came back this year and changed the law again to put the onus on prosecutors to prove, before a trial even begins, that the "stand your ground" defense is not justified.

The Legislature has tilted the playing field so far in the direction of defendants that justice is no longer swift nor guaranteed. It would be nice if someone in Tallahassee would finally step forward in support of victims and their families.