Florida’s “stand your ground” law has allowed drug dealers to avoid murder charges and gang members to walk free. It has stymied prosecutors and confused judges. • It has also served its intended purpose, exonerating dozens of people who were deemed to be legitimately acting in self-defense. Among them: a woman who was choked and beaten by an irate tenant and a man who was threatened in his driveway by a felon.
Seven years since it was passed, Florida’s “stand your ground” law is being invoked with unexpected frequency, in ways no one imagined, to free killers and violent attackers whose self-defense claims seem questionable at best.
Cases with similar facts show surprising — sometimes shocking — differences in outcomes. If you claim “stand your ground” as the reason you shot someone, what happens to you can depend less on the merits of the case than on who you are, whom you kill and where your case is decided.
Today, the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen, by a Hispanic neighborhood watch captain has prompted a renewed look at Florida’s controversial law.
In the most comprehensive effort of its kind, the Tampa Bay Times has identified nearly 200 “stand your ground” cases and their outcomes. The Times identified cases through media reports, court records and dozens of interviews with prosecutors and defense attorneys across the state.
Among the findings:
• Those who invoke “stand your ground” to avoid prosecution have been extremely successful. Nearly 70 percent have gone free.
• Defendants claiming “stand your ground” are more likely to prevail if the victim is black. Seventy-three percent of those who killed a black person faced no penalty compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white.
• The number of cases is increasing, largely because defense attorneys are using “stand your ground” in ways state legislators never envisioned. The defense has been invoked in dozens of cases with minor or no injuries. It has also been used by a self-described “vampire” in Pinellas County, a Miami man arrested with a single marijuana cigarette, a Fort Myers homeowner who shot a bear and a West Palm Beach jogger who beat a Jack Russell terrier.
• People often go free under “stand your ground” in cases that seem to make a mockery of what lawmakers intended. One man killed two unarmed people and walked out of jail. Another shot a man as he lay on the ground. Others went free after shooting their victims in the back. In nearly a third of the cases the Times analyzed, defendants initiated the fight, shot an unarmed person or pursued their victim — and still went free.
• Similar cases can have opposite outcomes. Depending on who decided their cases, some drug dealers claiming self-defense have gone to prison while others have been set free. The same holds true for killers who left a fight, only to arm themselves and return. Shoot someone from your doorway? Fire on a fleeing burglar? Your case can swing on different interpretations of the law by prosecutors, judge or jury.
• A comprehensive analysis of “stand your ground” decisions is all but impossible. When police and prosecutors decide not to press charges, they don’t always keep records showing how they reached their decisions. And no one keeps track of how many “stand your ground” motions have been filed or their outcomes.
Claiming “stand your ground,” people have used force to meet force outside an ice cream parlor, on a racquetball court and at a school bus stop. Two-thirds of the defendants used guns, though weapons have included an ice pick, shovel and chair leg.
The oldest defendant was an 81-year-old man; the youngest, a 14-year-old Miami youth who shot someone trying to steal his Jet Ski.
Ed Griffith, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, describes “stand your ground” as a “malleable” law being stretched to new limits daily.
“It’s arising now in the oddest of places,” he said.
That’s unlikely to change any time soon, according to prosecutors and defense attorneys, who say the number and types of cases are sure to rise.
“If you’re a defense counsel, you’d be crazy not to use it in any case where it could apply,” said Zachary Weaver, a West Palm Beach lawyer. “With the more publicity the law gets, the more individuals will get off.”