Florida’s ‘Very Scary’ Self-Defense Law and the Death of Trayvon Martin March 20, 2012 (Photo: SXC.) By Howard Goodman Florida Center for Investigative Reporting UPDATE 1:50 P.M. – WEDNESDAY, MARCH 21 The leader-designate of Democrats in the state House of Representatives, Perry E. Thurston, Jr., is calling for legislative hearings into the Stand Your Ground law. The Democrat from Plantation wrote to House Speaker Dean Cannon today, urging a review of the law in light of the “overwhelming public concerns” about Trayvon Martin’s shooting death. “I don’t think it was the intent of the Florida Legislature in 2005 to authorize citizens to be hunted down and shot with impunity,” said Representative Thurston. “I believe it is now imperative that lawmakers discuss and take a fresh look at Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.” UPDATE: 9:32 A.M. – WEDNESDAY, MARCH 21 Gov. Rick Scott, in a surprise meeting with protesters outside his Tallahassee office, said he, too, has concerns about the Stand Your Ground law. He said lawmakers should perhaps revisit the seven-year-old law, which critics say allows gun-toters to get away with murder, the Palm Beach Post reported. “If there’s something wrong with the law that’s in place, I think it’s important we address it. I’m going to look at it. If what’s happening is it’s being abused, that’s not right. We all want to live in a safe place,” Scott told the 50 protesters on Tuesday. Earlier in the day, Scott told reporters: “Any time we see something like that we have to review and make sure we’re not giving people the opportunity to use the law unfairly.” State Senator Chris Smith said he plans to file legislation to clear up what he called a gray area in the law, the Post reported. “The language is vague so what we want to do is point out that you cannot initiate contact,” said Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, who voted against the bill while in the Florida House in 2005. Smith said justifiable homicide has increased three-fold since the “stand your grand” law went into effect seven years ago, with many of the victims black. “What it’s done is, it has emboldened those who are sometimes looking for confrontation, because they realize they have the shield of this law. This is a classic case of, if it’s my word against yours and you happen to be dead, there’s no way of knowing,” he said. UPDATE 8:40 P.M. – Tuesday, March 20 A state senator has called for legislative hearings into the Stand Your Ground law. State Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Democrat who represents the Miami Gardens district where Trayvon Martin’s mother lives, says the law could not have been intended “for people [to] go out and become vigilantes or be like some weird Batman who would go out and kill little kids like Trayvon.” He told the Miami Herald: “As we see, this law could disproportionately affect the African American population. We know how racial profiling goes. If you feel intimidated by someone, you can pull a gun on someone and shoot them? That’s not the kind of law we need.” ORIGINAL STORY: Why wasn’t George Zimmerman charged with a crime after shooting Trayvon Martin dead? One big reason: Florida’s self-defense law. Passed in 2005 and called Stand Your Ground, the law made it legal for citizens to use deadly force against a threat without first retreating from the situation — a huge change in legal doctrine of very long standing. Since then, 16 other states have followed Florida’s lead. Slate’s Emily Bazelon provides an excellent explanation of the law’s history and effects: Florida’s new law did three things: It further loosened the restrictions on using deadly force at home. It scrapped the duty to retreat in public places. And it gave people who use self-defense civil and criminal immunity. The National Rifle Association and its intrepid Tallahassee lobbyist, Marion P. Hammer, had pushed hard for the measure, saying law-abiding citizens needed legal permission to defend themselves when they felt threatened. But as Slate puts it, the law has made no one safer — except the person who shoots first: Prosecutors opposed the Stand Your Ground law, and they still complain about it. “It is an abomination,” former Broward County Prosecutor David Frankel told the Sun Sentinel in January. “The ultimate intent might be good, but in practice, people take the opportunity to shoot first and say later they had a justification. It almost gives them a free pass to shoot.” That Sun Sentinel story, by reporter Mike Clary, concerned a former sheriff’s deputy, Maury Hernandez, who pumped several bullets into unarmed homeless man in a Haagen-Dazs shop in Miami Lakes on a Saturday afternoon. Hernandez, who was with his fiancee, his mother and three young children, said the man aggressively asked for money and then tried to assault him. Witnesses said Hernandez warned the man several times before taking out his gun and firing several times. The police said they wouldn’t charge Hernandez for the shooting because he claimed he was under attack. The investigation continues, but Miami-Dade Detective Alvaro Zabaleta said charges are unlikely because Hernandez was under assault. The incident prompted a lively debate on the Sun Sentinel‘s website, where readers posted scores of comments. “Good for Sgt. Hernandez!” read one comment. Yet many were troubled by Hernandez’s decision to open fire and to pull the trigger more than once. “Agents have taken on criminals, terrorists, etc., without ever firing a shot,” wrote one poster. In an earlier investigation, the Tampa Bay Times found that, in the first five years of the Stand Your Ground, reports of justifiable homicides tripled after the law went into effect, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. “Last year, twice a week, on average, someone’s killing was considered warranted,” the Times wrote in the 2010 article. Bazelon’s dour conclusion about the Trayvon Martin shooting: Maybe this is the kind of case that is so sad and so tinged with racism that Florida will think hard about the very scary place where their self-defense laws have taken them. Maybe. Her pessimism sounds well placed. The Miami Herald reports that two legislators who fathered the Stand Your Ground law say they don’t believe that Zimmerman’s actions come close to self-defense. Therefore, the law shouldn’t be questioned. State Rep. Dennis Baxley, a Republican from Ocala, said: “There’s nothing in this statute that authorizes you to pursue and confront people, particularly if law enforcement has told you to stay put. I don’t see why this statute is being challenged in this case. That is to prevent you from being attacked by other people.” Former state Sen. Durell Peadon, a Republican from Crestview, said the 911 tapes make clear that Zimmerman overstepped his bounds when he continued to follow the “suspicious” teen after a police dispatcher said not to. “They got the goods on him. They need to prosecute whoever shot the kid,” Peaden said. “He has no protection under my law.” The Herald‘s Marc Caputo adds: Both Baxley and Peaden said the law didn’t need to be clarified and said some are using Trayvon’s death to attack gun rights.Peaden said he sponsored the law in 2005 after an old man from Pensacola shot an intruder who tried to loot his hurricane-ravaged home. The old man, whose name Peaden could no longer remember, had to hire a lawyer and fret he’d be charged for defending himself and his property. Baxley said the law isn’t the problem. It’s the “application” of the law that’s at issue. If anything needs to be changed in law, Baxley said, it’s making sure that crime-watch captains aren’t acting like armed vigilantes.