LONGWOOD, FLORIDA, June 13, 2012 -
The first public hearing of Gov. Rick Scott's Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection offered a wide range of opinion on the "stand your ground" law in Seminole County Tuesday, with roughly 100 people turning out to speak.
Among them were hardline supporters of the statute and the bereaved parents and spouses who'd lost loved ones to shooters who were never charged.
Longwood, near Sanford, was chosen for the panel’s first hearing because it's near where 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed on Feb. 26.
Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, the panel’s chairwoman, said the charge of the task force is not to debate Trayvon Martin's death or the case of George Zimmerman, who says he shot Martin in self-defense. National outrage over the lack of an arrest in the case prompted Scott to create the task force and to name Jacksonville State Attorney Angela Corey the special prosecutor in Martin's case; she charged Zimmerman with second degree murder.
Carroll said the first public hearing was held here to give its community members some "closure" on the shooting death that has roiled the state and nation for months.
The task force's morning session offered an overview of the law by Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Krista Marx. Prosecutors, public defenders and law enforcement officials presented as well.
"Reasonable minds will vary," said Marx – and differing opinions were then expressed.
The afternoon session was the public hearing. Among the speakers was state Sen. Chris Smith, incoming Senate Democratic Leader and leader of an independent panel investigating "stand your ground." He called on the state to start to start keeping statistics on cases affected by the law.
"There are many instances where law enforcement used their discretion not to arrest and state attorneys used their discretion not to charge," said Smith, "so we don’t know of the maybe thousands of times that 'stand your ground' was used and nothing ever happened."
Ronald Vogt, a Seminole County resident who supports the law, said police officers couldn't be everywhere.
"But there come[s] a point in time where I see a robbery or rape or something going down where I need to intervene, I think there's a better probability of saving their life than losing my own. The 'stand your ground' law is the only way of entering in without my going to jail," Vogt said. "I'm not afraid of dying – the only thing I fear is God."
"This is a good law," said B.J. Smith, a retired civil trial lawyer. "Please do not try and fix it."
Other speakers called for changes or clarifications in "stand your ground," including Martin's parents.
Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, parents of the unarmed black teen who was shot killed less than four months ago, didn't necessarily call for the law's repeal. Fulton pleaded with the panel to at least "look at" the law in light of her son's death.
Tracy Martin choked up as he said he'd be spending Father's Day this year at the cemetery. He and Fulton also delivered 375,000 online petitions collected by Second Chance on Shoot First, a national campaign.
Listening to the stories "softened" the stances of panel members, Smith said.
Criminal attorney Mark Seiden, a task force member, said he was disappointed that more local citizens didn't turn out. But Carroll was upbeat.
"From the comments that we heard from the sponsors of the law – and even they came to the forefront and said, 'from what we heard, we need to make some changes, and I'll be receptive'…I want to listen with an honest and open mind," Carroll said.
Many of the speakers didn't want to give up their right to defend themselves, she said, but also want a fair application of the law.
The panel is holding meetings statewide and will make recommendations to Scott and the Legislature about whether the law should be changed.
Carroll said the Smith task force recommendations had been placed on the task force's web site, along with other resources and the opportunity to comment. The address is CitizenSafety@eog.myflorida.com.
Gov. Rick Scott's appointed Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection holds its first public hearing this morning near Sanford, the site of the Trayvon Martin shooting that spurred the new look at the state's self defense law.
The panel is charged with studying the 2005 "Stand Your Ground," law, which says people out in the streets have no duty to try to retreat before shooting someone to death in self defense. The committee is expected to report its findings to Scott and the Legislature.
An outpouring of public comment is expected, with passions running high on both sides.
The death of Martin, an unarmed black teenager, brought national attention to Florida. His acknowledged shooter, the half-Hispanic George Zimmerman, may invoke the "stand your ground" defense when he faces second degree murder charges. He initially told police he acted in self defense, and wasn't arrested until after a loud outcry and charges of racism.
The particular self defense doctrine has broad support, generally, in many parts of Florida.
"This law is important because it underlines freedom – the freedom and the sanctity and value of every individual in our culture," said state Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, House sponsor of "stand your ground" in 2005 and now a member of the panel.
Martin's parents are expected to testify to the panel today.
The National Rifle Association's Marion Hammer – whom many credit for getting "stand your ground" passed – galvanized her members' response by emailing them: "National agitators, numerous state legislators and congressional representatives have been trying to undermine your basic right of self-defense by calling for the repeal of or damaging changes to Florida's 'Castle Doctrine' law."
The Castle Doctrine existed before the Stand Your Ground change. It says that someone's home is their castle, and they're justified in shooting intruders in self defense with no duty to retreat. The stand your ground law was essentially an extension of that doctrine, broadening it to include confrontations outside people's homes: on the so-called "public square."
One lawmaker that will be at today's meeting is incoming Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, who wanted to join the task force but wasn't appointed. He convened his own panel, which called for changes in the law, and will make its report at the meeting in Longwood, near Sanford where the Trayvon Martin shooting occurred in February.
"You have prostitutes shooting their johns and availing themselves of this law," Smith said. "You have gang members having shootouts and availing themselves of this law. You have people chasing someone a block down the street, stabbing someone to death and availing themselves of this law. I think those points need to be clarified."
But former state Sen. Durell Peaden, R-Crestview and the law's Senate sponsor, said it "needs to be preserved." It is being misapplied, he argued.
"It wasn't passed for somebody to chase somebody down the street and shoot 'em in the back," Peaden said. "There's just no quick fix."
Peaden, who was an emergency room doctor for 25 years, said he'd treated many victims after they had defended themselves and didn't sponsor the measure without considering it from many angles.
Florida was the first state to pass "stand your ground," which quickly spread to more than 20 others. A recent study by the Tampa Bay Times identified 192 cases in which the law has been invoked since, with nearly 70 percent of potential defendants going free.
Angela Corey, the state attorney in Jacksonville and special prosecutor in the Martin case, says most cases are clear under the law.
"And if it is so clear-cut, and there is no probable cause to arrest somebody for homicide or attempted homicide – or one of the numerous other statutes where someone hurts another – then we don't make an arrest in that case," Corey said in an interview. "That is…pretty much a clear-cut case when it involves a police officer, homeowner, convenience store clerk."
Benjamin Crump, attorney for the Martin family, said the law should be consistent and transparent, but isn't.
"Even the state's attorneys and the police officers say it's too hard to try to follow what we're supposed to do when we have these stand your ground things, so it could be arbitrarily used," Crump said.
Corey said there are too many variables for that kind of consistency.
"There's so many different ways these cases come in, the paths that they can take – there's no one set of rules," she said. "So you could never take all the 'stand your ground' cases and say, 'Well, how come this person was arrested and this one wasn't? How come this one had a hearing and this one didn't?'"
As to racial bias, the Times study was inconclusive. It found that 73 percent of defendants who killed a black person went free, whereas 59 percent of defendants who killed a white person went free. It also found that whites and blacks who invoked the law were both charged and convicted at roughly the same rate.
"It seemed like more black defendants who shoot and kill other black defendants don't get charged – you won't find that here in Jacksonville. Human life is human life to us. And we go hard on whoever we have to go hard on," Corey said. "We also mitigate whoever we should mitigate, and we offer good deals to whoever deserves a good deal."
Other studies show wider racial gaps. John Roman, a policy fellow at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, pointed to national data by the Federal Bureau of Investigation over a five-year period – sorted for single shooter and single victim who are unknown to one another. The data showed that in 70,000 cases deemed justifiable homicide, 25 involved black shooters killing white people, while 350 involved white shooters killing black people.
Roman, who analyzed homicides in the U.S. from 2005 to 2009, found that they are twice as likely to be ruled justifiable in "stand your ground" states and that in many cases, law enforcement officers can't arrest the shooters and question them in detail, even if they consider such interviews essential.
Last Friday, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights announced it will investigate how race affects the enforcement of stand-your-ground laws nationwide.
The governor's task force plans meetings well into the fall – with a report due before the Legislature meets again next March. But Smith says tourists are deciding right now whether to come to Florida – which needs their dollars badly.
"We've gotten numerous emails and numerous accounts from people all around the country that think that this law makes us a lawless society in Florida," he said. "And so I think the sooner the better, especially going into the summer tourist season."
Zimmerman, whose bond was recently revoked, has a new bond hearing scheduled for June 29 before Circuit Judge Kenneth R. Lester.