In Florida, 130 Self-Defense Claims Like George Zimmerman’s

In a police video from the night Trayvon Martin was shot and killed, George Zimmerman does not appear to be wounded. (Screenshot: ABC News.)

By Howard Goodman
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

The Tampa Bay Times has taken a fresher look at the impact of Stand Your Ground, and the newspaper finds the controversial redefinition of self-defense has been invoked at least 130 times in Florida since it became state law in 2005.

The Times, surveying 31 Florida newspapers and public records, reports that the number of cases “climbed dramatically in the past year and a half.” And “police and prosecutors continue to apply the law unevenly.”

The newspaper’s work is important because no group keeps a tally of how often the statute — a crucial element in lack of charges against George Zimmerman, the Sanford neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin — is invoked.

The last time the Times looked at this question was in October 2010, when the law was five years old. At that point, the law had been invoked in 93 cases with 65 deaths.

The current count — 130 cases, with more than 90 deaths:

In the majority of the cases, the person who plunged the knife or swung the bat or pulled the trigger did not face a trial.

In 50 of the cases, the person who used force was never charged with a crime. Another nine defendants were granted immunity by a judge, and nine cases were dismissed.

In 10 cases, the defendant pleaded guilty to lesser crimes.

Of the 28 cases that made it to trial, 19 people were found guilty of a crime.

Twenty-two cases are still pending. (The outcomes of two could not be learned by press time.)…

“Justifiable homicides” reported to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement have increased threefold since the law went into effect.

The law expands a person’s right to use deadly force if he “reasonably believes” it is necessary to stop another person from killing or seriously harming him. This used to be the standard when the person defending himself was in his own house. Outside, he had a time-honored duty to retreat from a confrontation if he could.

No longer. Now Floridians who use self-defense get civil and criminal immunity.

Proponents say the law — pushed heavily by the National Rifle Association first in Florida and then in 23 other states — is working. They say it evens the odds for law-abiding citizens who find themselves in dangerous situations without having to wait for help from police — help that might never come.

But, as the Times put it, “the law has also been used to excuse killings in bar brawls, gang shootouts and road-rage incidents.”

And now it’s at the core of a national uproar, perhaps the most riveting racially-charged killing since the 1955 murder of Emmett Till.

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