Florida killing raises questions about 'stand your ground' laws

Sunday , March 25, 2012 - 8:13 AM

Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Tim Susman

SANFORD, Fla. -- It has been called "obscene," "stupid" and the "right-to-commit-murder law."

It has also been credited with protecting people like Sarah McKinley, a young widow who killed a knife-wielding man after he broke into her Oklahoma home.

Opinions about so-called stand your ground legislation -- at the center of the Trayvon Martin killing in Sanford, Fla. -- are as vastly different as the cases in which it has been invoked since Florida in 2005 became the first state to adopt such a statute. But now, even defenders of stand your ground laws say they may need tweaking to clarify the stew of interpretations that critics say are letting people like George Zimmerman, who shot the unarmed 17-year-old, get away with murder.

Randy Jones, a Sanford city commissioner who calls himself "a firm believer in my Second Amendment rights," said that if the statute was creating the sort of confusion -- and public rage -- that has resulted from the Martin slaying, "it would be imperative for the Legislature not necessarily to repeal the law, but maybe to refine it."

"I really think, at some point, we're all going to realize that what we have, what we're dealing with, and what our police chief is dealing with is a bad law," said fellow Commissioner Patty Mahany, who joined Jones last week in defending Sanford's police chief, Bill Lee Jr., against a no-confidence motion. Lee went on paid leave Thursday after the motion passed 3-2 amid anger over his department's decision not to arrest Zimmerman for shooting Martin, who was black and whose death has sparked allegations of institutional racism.

Lee has said Zimmerman appeared to be protected by the stand your ground law, which permits someone to "stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force," if the person fears death or great bodily harm. The law removes the duty to retreat in the face of a perceived threat, and it allows the use of force virtually anywhere -- a home, an ice-cream shop, a public sidewalk or jogging trail.

Since 2005, similar or identical laws have been adopted in at least 20 other states, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. More states have laws based on stand your ground but with more limitations on where it can be applied. Most have followed Florida's lead in removing the duty of a person to retreat to prevent an altercation.

In some cases, the law's value is not in dispute, as when McKinley, at home alone with her baby, shot a man dead after he broke down the door of her Blanchard, Okla., home last New Year's Eve. McKinley was guaranteed immunity against criminal charges and civil suits under that state's law..

"This is probably one of the best pieces of legislation our legislators have put into place because it enables people to defend themselves and their home," said Brandon Clabes, the police chief of Midwest City, Okla., a town of about 56,000, where in the past year and a half, three killings have been ruled justifiable under the state's law.

Few dispute the right of people to defend themselves inside their homes. The problem comes when both parties have a right to be where an assault has occurred, as in the Martin case, said Jacksonville, Fla., defense attorney Eric Friday, who lobbied for stand your ground. "You fall back on who was the aggressor," he said.

That forces prosecutors "to prove the person is not reasonable" when someone opens fire, said Sam Hoover, an attorney at the Legal Community Against Violence in San Francisco, which opposes the laws. "It makes it hard in cases, including the Trayvon Martin case, to arrest the individual who killed him."

The situation is exacerbated when there are no eyewitnesses, as on the rainy night of Feb. 26 when Martin walked to the home of a family friend who lived in the same gated community as Zimmerman. The teenager carried some candy, a drink and his cell phone; Zimmerman carried a 9-millimeter pistol, for which he had a permit. In his call to a 911 operator, he described the teenager as looking "suspicious" and continued to trail him, even after the operator advised him not to.

The fact that Trayvon was black and Zimmerman is not -- the police report describes him as "white," but his father says he is Latino -- has added to the public anger and sparked a national debate over racial stereotyping and whether stand your ground laws put young blacks at particular risk. President Barack Obama entered the conversation Friday, saying if he had a son, "he'd look like Trayvon."

Willie Thomas, a black Sanford resident, said his son, 21-year-old Willie Thomas Jr., began a 10-year prison sentence last year for shooting another man in an altercation. According to Thomas, the man, who survived, had a long-term rivalry with his son and had been ordered by a court to stay away from the family.

"He did what he had to do -- why is he doing 10 years?" Thomas said of his son. "My son had a court order of protection. The other guy had a gun too." Speaking of Zimmerman, he said: "If it was the other way around and that guy was black, he'd already be like my son and shipped off to prison."

But Arthur Hayhoe, director of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, who monitors stand your ground cases, said the "stupid law" rather than racism is the problem because it opens the door for anyone to claim self-defense.

"It has nothing to do with self-defense. It's just expanding the use of self-defense to justify shooting Uncle Joe in the backyard because you don't like his barbecue," Hayhoe said. He sees police and prosecutors as among the unintended victims of the law because it hinders their ability to bring charges and opens them up to allegations of racism and incompetence.

"These are the people who have to administer this stupid law," said Hayhoe, who said the law has accomplished what the National Rifle Association wanted -- protecting gun-owners' rights -- but with unintended consequences underscored by Martin's death. The NRA did not return calls seeking comment.

The Sanford case is one of at least 18 that Hayhoe has documented in Florida in which there were no eyewitnesses and the killers went free based on stand your ground.

According to Florida state records, justifiable homicides by private citizens -- not law enforcement officers -- have risen steadily under the stand your ground law. In 2010, there were 40; in 2004, there were eight. FBI statistics on justifiable homicides nationwide show similar increases, from 196 in 2005 to 278 in 2010.

"Justifiable homicide" would include McKinley's shooting of the home invader; but it also covers a 2007 case in Texas, where Joe Horn, then 61, shot dead two men he spotted breaking into his neighbor's house. "You're dead!" Horn howled before opening fire, as a 911 operator urged him not to. A grand jury refused to indict him, citing that state's stand your ground law.

Last week, a Miami judge cited stand your ground in throwing out manslaughter charges against a man who chased a suspected burglar more than a block and stabbed him to death. The Miami Herald described Ervens Ford, the police sergeant who supervised the investigation, as "floored" by the decision.

The killing occurred in January, the same month a retired sheriff's deputy shot and wounded an unarmed homeless man in a Haagen-Dazs shop in Miami Lakes, Fla. The shooter was not charged, based on his stand your ground claim that the man was threatening his family.

"It's an obscene law and a license to kill," said Barbara Standard, whose 46-year-old son, Scott Sumner Standard, was shot to death in January 2011 outside his house in Ozello, Fla. The neighbor who killed him claimed self-defense, saying Standard had thrown a rock at his truck's windshield.

And former Florida Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, who signed the stand your ground legislation into law, said Saturday he doubted it would apply in Zimmerman's case. "Stand your ground means stand your ground. It doesn't mean chase after somebody who's turned their back," he said while visiting a university in Texas.

But it is not that simple, said Friday, the Jacksonville defense attorney. He cited the recent case of a driver who shot a carjacker who had hopped into his vehicle's passenger seat. Without the stand your ground law, the driver might have faced charges because he shot the man in the back.

"Just because somebody turns away doesn't mean they're retreating -- they may just be looking for a better position to shoot you from," Friday said in defending the driver's actions.

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(Susman reported from Sanford and Hennessy-Fiske from Los Angeles)

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(c)2012 the Los Angeles Times

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