Stand Your Ground Law Under Fire, But Likely To Remain

Mar 11, 2014

Rev. Al Sharpton (center) marches with parents and family of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and others in Tallahassee Monday. They are calling on Florida to repeal the state's Stand Your Ground law.
Credit Tom Urban / News Service of Florida

Civil-rights leader Al Sharpton led a crowd of about 1,000 people to the Florida Capitol on Monday, demanding that Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature fix or repeal the "stand your ground" self-defense law.

Sharpton marched alongside the parents of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, two teens the marchers said were wrongly killed under Florida's first-in-the-nation law, which allows people to use deadly force when they feel their lives are in danger and provides immunity from prosecution. 

"Florida is ground zero for a sick and wicked law that has now spread through 23 other states," Sharpton told the crowd on the Capitol steps. "It started in Florida, and we've come to start the ending of it in Florida."

Speakers ranged from prominent black pastors to radio personality Tom Joyner to Democratic politicians who tried and failed to repeal the law last year. 

The speakers invoked Martin, who was killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, and Davis, who was killed by Michael Dunn in Jacksonville, both in 2012. They also invoked Marissa Alexander, who faces 60 years in prison for firing a warning shot at her abusive husband.

All three are African American.

"Now, this bill started out fine," said U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown, D-Fla.. "Defend your castle. That's your home. But there's something wrong when you can shoot a warning shot and get 60 years --- Miss Alexander --- and you can shoot and kill a black person and feel threatened when you started the fight!"

But House Judiciary Chairman Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, defended the law against criticism from Sharpton and others.

"This scenario that he's painted that old white vigilantes are going around hunting down young teenage black kids and murdering them in the street --- he knows that is not what's happened," Baxley said. "That fits the myth, and that fits the scenario that he wants to paint, but it's a very dangerous one. It's very irresponsible, and it will get people hurt that shouldn't be." 

After the 17-year-old Martin was shot and killed in February 2012, Zimmerman was not immediately charged; he claimed he shot the teen in self-defense. Protests spread nationwide, and in their wake Gov. Rick Scott appointed a task force to review the "stand your ground" law. The task force, which concluded its work before a jury acquitted Zimmerman of second-degree murder charges, recommended minor tweaks to the law but concluded it should remain intact.

Zimmerman claimed he shot Martin in self-defense, but did not use "stand your ground" to avoid being prosecuted. The law, however, spawned changes to jury instructions that at least one Zimmerman juror said resulted in the not-guilty verdict.

After Zimmerman was acquitted last July, a group called the Dream Defenders sat in at the Capitol for 31 days, calling for a special legislative session on the law. State leaders denied the request.

Davis, also 17, was killed at a gas station in a car with three other black youths after arguing with Dunn over loud music. Dunn, a white man, claimed he shot at the teenagers because he thought they had a weapon in the car. Last month a Jacksonville jury found Dunn guilty of four charges related to the shooting --- but could not reach a decision on first-degree murder.

That prompted the Rev. R. B. Holmes, Jr., the vice-chairman of Scott's "stand your ground" task force, to ask the governor to seek a repeal of the law. 

"Mister Governor," Holmes called Monday. "I served as the vice-chair of your task force. We said to you, 'Please, sir, study this law.' If this law (is) being applied unjustly, unwisely and unfairly, then the moral thing to do is repair it or repeal it."

Holmes, who is black, has said that Scott should implement the task force's suggested review of the law "to analyze if black people and poor people are being the victim of misapplication." 

The likelihood of that is not great. A bill that would have repealed "stand your ground" failed last fall, and lawmakers are now considering expanding the law. The House Judiciary Committee voted overwhelmingly last month to approve what has become known as the "warning shot" bill, readying it to go to the full House. The bill (HB 89), sponsored by Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, would grant immunity to people who threaten to use force, including displaying weapons or firing warning shots, in self-defense. 

In any case, Baxley, the House sponsor of “stand your ground” when it passed in 2005, said the law didn't apply in the cases or either Martin or Davis, because their killers were charged and tried before juries.

He also said he'd tried to explain to members of the black legislative caucus that "there is no color line" in the “stand your ground” law. 

"As a matter of fact, the numbers show that twice as many African Americans are protected by our law than the general population, if you look at the number of people who successfully use self-defense claims of stand your ground to avoid prosecution," he said.