TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida’s “stand your ground” law, a source of contention for years, could soon provide even more protection to people who invoke it. Some lawmakers want to make prosecutors prove a defendant wasn’t acting in self-defense before proceeding to trial.
Florida has been a leader in giving citizens immunity in cases of self-defense, with its “stand your ground” law serving as an emotional point of debate after several high-profile shooting deaths, including that of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.
While at least 22 states have similar laws that say people can use force – even deadly force – to defend themselves from threats, Florida could soon be alone shifting the burden of proof to prosecutors.
Republican Sen. Rob Bradley says his bill “isn’t a novel concept.”
“We have a tradition in our criminal justice system that the burden of proof is with the government from the beginning of the case to the end,” he said.
Florida’s Supreme Court has ruled that the burden of proof is on defendants during self-defense immunity hearings. That’s the practice around the country. According to a legislative staff analysis of Bradley’s bill, only four states mention burden of proof in their “stand your ground” laws – Alabama, Colorado, Georgia and South Carolina – and all place the burden on defendants.
Bradley’s bill died last year but now its chances are improving: It’s ready for a full Senate vote when the session begins next week, and one of two House committees assigned to hear it has approved it.
Democrats are opposing the bill, but have little leverage to stop it in a legislature dominated by Republicans and with a Republican governor.
The bill has received passionate opposition from people who feel the existing law has already been abused and will be invoked even more by people seeking to avoid responsibility for violent crimes.
Stand your ground is not just about guns: The defense can be invoked after any act of violence aimed at self-protection, whether it’s punching, stabbing, shooting or striking someone with an object.
Neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman’s fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin isn’t the only case that’s part of the debate in Florida.
Lucy McBath’s 17-year-old son Jordan Davis was fatally shot by Michael Dunn during an argument over loud music outside a Jacksonville convenience store. And in the Tampa Bay area, retired police officer Curtis Reeves is claiming self-defense in a “stand your ground” pretrial hearing after fatally shooting Chad Oulson in a dispute over a cellphone at a movie theater.
Both Zimmerman and Dunn claimed self-defense at trial and “stand your ground” was included in their juries’ instructions. Zimmerman was acquitted and Dunn was eventually convicted of murder.
McBath believes the way the law currently reads is why Dunn’s first jury couldn’t reach a decision, and says expanding “stand your ground” protections would make it harder to keep people safe from gun violence.
Testifying against the bill at a Senate committee meeting, McBath said the current law already “encourages citizens to shoot first and ask questions later.”
“This legislation would effectively require defendants who raise stand your ground defenses to be convicted twice,” she said. “Having lived through this grueling experience first-hand with two trials for my son’s murder, I can attest to the anguish and the pain that this process elicits. We should not make it harder for family members to achieve the justice that they deserve.”
Marissa Alexander, in contrast, supports Bradley’s bill. She unsuccessfully tried a “stand your ground” defense and was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2012 for firing a gun near her estranged husband. She called it a “warning shot” to protect herself from abuse. Her conviction was thrown out on appeal and she was freed after reaching a plea deal in 2014.
“I feel like you go into that kind of situation guilty until proven innocent,” she said. She hopes Florida will start another trend if it passes.
“Florida kind of sets the tone and other states follow,” she said.
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