By BRENDAN FARRINGTON
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida doesn’t just want to let people stand their ground, it also wants to make the state prove they didn’t commit violence in self-defense before taking them to trial.
Florida has been seen as a leader in giving citizens immunity in cases of self-defense, 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 the only one that spells out that prosecutors have to prove defendants weren’t acting in self-defense before taking someone to trial.
That’s under a bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Rob Bradley, who says his legislation “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.
Bradley’s bill is a response to a state Supreme Court ruling that the burden of proof during self-defense immunity hearings is on defendants, as has traditionally been practiced in Florida and elsewhere. According to a legislative staff analysis of the 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 filed the bill last year, but it died without House support. This year, it’s ready for a full Senate vote when the session begins next week and it already has been approved by one of two House committees assigned to hear it, indicating better chances this year.
The bill has received passionate opposition from people who feel the existing law already can be abused, and will be used even more by people who commit violent crimes and claim self-defense. Florida has many examples that find their way into the debate, most notably neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman’s fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin.
But Zimmerman isn’t the only case.
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 wrapping up a “stand your ground” pretrial hearing claiming self-defense when he fatally shot Chad Oulson in a dispute over a cellphone at a movie theater.
In the Zimmerman and Dunn cases, neither requested a pre-trial hearing, though the “stand your ground” law was presented in jury instructions and both claimed self-defense at trial. Zimmerman was acquitted and Dunn was convicted of first-degree murder at a second trial after a jury couldn’t come to a decision at his first.
Still, McBath believes the way the law currently reads is why the jury couldn’t reach a decision, and she thinks expanding “stand your ground” protections could benefit others who should otherwise be convicted of crimes.
She told lawmakers the law “encourages citizens to shoot first and ask questions later.” She said Bradley’s bill is dangerous and would make it harder to keep people safe from gun violence.
“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.”
Stand your ground is not just about guns, though it is often discussed along with other gun bills in Florida. The defense can be used after any act of violence to protect oneself, whether it’s punching, stabbing, shooting or striking someone with an object.
Marissa Alexander’s life also was changed by gunfire, though she is a supporter of “stand your ground” and of Bradley’s bill. Alexander was initially sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2012 for firing a gun near her estranged husband. She argued it was a “warning shot” to protect herself from an abusive husband and unsuccessfully tried to use Florida’s “stand your ground” law in her defense. Alexander’s conviction was later 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, adding that the bill would help people like her by forcing the state to prove their case before trial. She added that it could set a trend if it passes.
“Florida kind of sets the tone and other states follow,” she said.