As the white-hot center of national scrutiny centered on last month’s killing of an unarmed teen in Sanford, Florida, the state’s self defense law, particularly its “stand your ground” proposition, needs a fresh look, black lawmakers said Tuesday, reports Margie Menzel of the News Service of Florida.
Gov. Rick Scott said the facts need to be understood first, but didn’t dismiss the idea of a new look at the state’s stand-your-ground law. Meanwhile, officials said a grand jury next month will have a look at the case.
The U.S. Department of Justice and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement are investigating the Feb. 26 death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer while visiting his father’s girlfriend’s house in a gated community. George Zimmerman, 28, is claiming self-defense and has not been charged – although Seminole County state attorney Norm Wolfinger said Tuesday he would bring the case before a grand jury on April 10.
Since Martin, who was black, was shot, there have been national calls for an arrest, especially after a 911 tape was released in which police are heard telling Zimmerman not to track Martin’s movements.
“Are you following him?” asked the dispatcher. “Yeah,” Zimmerman replied. “Okay, we don’t need you to do that,” said the dispatcher. “Okay,” Zimmerman said.
Subsequent 911 calls included sounds of screams that ended with a gunshot. A young woman who was talking with Martin just before his death – according to cell phone records – told ABC News that he’d said he was being followed. “He said this man was watching him, so he put his hoodie on,” she said. The 16-year-old, who doesn’t want to be named, said she then heard Martin say, “What are you following me for?” and the man reply, “What are you doing around here?”
In 2005, lawmakers changed the state’s self defense law, allowing people to “stand their ground” and shoot at people who they believe are threatening them, without having any duty to first retreat.
With the Martin shooting getting national attention, that law was being debated all over again this week. The Legislature’s black caucus is considering several responses, from pushing for a repeal of the law, to a call for statewide hearings on the issue.
Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said Sen. Chris Smith, the Senate Democratic Leader-designate, will file legislation “to tamp it down so the least incident doesn’t lead one to believe that they’ve got to pull their gun and shoot somebody…We really need to take a second look at this law.” Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Democrat from Miami Gardens, where Martin’s mother lives, also called for a new look at the law.
But former state Sen. Durell Peaden, the Panhandle Republican who sponsored the 2005 legislation, scoffed at the notion that it was even applicable in this case.
“This guy chasing someone down and shooting him – that has nothing to do with this law,” Peaden said. “It’s somebody trying to forestall arrest.”
Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala who sponsored the stand-your-ground law in the House, also said it wasn’t intended for cases involving pursuit.
“Nothing in that statute authorizes people to pursue and confront people,” Baxley said. “That’s the problem in this case.”
Baxley said the law covers home invasion, carjacking, and cases of clear self-protection.
Some said the measure was essentially an expansion of the “Castle Doctrine,” which holds that a person’s home is their castle and they have a right to defend it. Under the law now, the castle also could include a car, or someone’s personal space, if they’re legitimately threatened.
“If you’re anywhere you have a right to be and you’re under attack, you have the authority to meet force with force and defend yourself,” said Baxley.
Former state Sen. Steven Geller, however, recalled his prediction in the 2005 debate over the law, when he warned it laid the groundwork for unjustifiable homicide.
“We never intended that the public street is supposed to be your castle,” he said. “We never intended that you could create a situation and then claim you were scared.”
Baxley said it’s important to look at the big picture.
“The fact is, under this statute, we’ve seen a tremendous reduction in violent crime,” he said. “When you empower people to stop bad things from happening, they will. And they do. And that’s what the bill did.”
Braynon is calling for hearings and a study of how the law has been implemented and applied.
“This law was never intended to be a blanket of protection for community vigilantes who think they can bypass law enforcement instructions and shoot anyone they see fit,” Braynon said in a statement. “We know that racial profiling exists…It shouldn’t be that, if you feel intimidated by someone, you can pull a gun and shoot them? That’s not the kind of law we need.”
While Scott said there’s still information to be gathered, he didn’t dismiss the idea that the self defense law may need another look.
“And once we finish this investigation, if there’s something that we need to adjust, I’m hopeful that the Legislature would be interested in taking that up,” Scott told reporters.
Joyner, meanwhile, criticized Scott for waiting until Mar. 19 to ask FDLE to help investigate the Feb. 26 death.
“The governor should have been leading the charge, and not waiting to be driven by the people and by the Department of Justice,” said Joyner.
Also Tuesday, about 50 protestors showed up at Scott’s office at the Capitol, demanding “Justice for Trayvon.” Scott met with them, but said he doesn’t want to create a racial profiling task force, as they requested – at least while the investigation is active.
“None of us believe in racial profiling,” Scott said. “But I think the first thing is: let’s find out what happened.”
Peaden said he hopes the FDLE and FBI “and whatever special prosecutor the governor puts on this thing will do what needs to be done instead of everybody standing around wringing their hands.
“Put the guy in jail. It sounds like he shot a guy who was innocent. That has nothing to do with this law.”