Sharpton was joined in Tallahassee by the families of slain teenagers Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis and by Marissa Alexander, the Florida woman who was sentenced to 20 years for firing a warning shot near her estranged husband.
The protestors rallied against the law, echoing the sentiments of many residents in South Florida who want the law amended or repealed.
The killing of Trayvon and Jordan was also the focus at the recent Urban League of Palm Beach County’s 12th annual Heritage Day Luncheon. Attorney John Howe, the keynote speaker, talked about the progress which the Civil Rights Movement has made and said the “stand your ground” law sets a dangerous precedent.
Howe told the gathering of about 100 that, in light of the trial of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted of murder charges for killing Trayvon and of Michael Dunn, where the jury deadlocked in his trial for killing Jordan, it was imperative that the law is closely examined.
Dunn was convicted of three counts of second-degree murder for shooting into a vehicle with four young black males in it after an argument over loud music. Jordan, 17, was killed during in the hail of bullets but the jury deadlocked on the first-degree murder charge in his slaying.
Dunn, like Zimmerman claimed self-defense. Although the “stand your ground” law was not specifically invoked in either case, it was cited in jury instructions and some jurors said it was a factor in their decisions.
Howe said the law is a microcosm of a huge problem being seen across the state.
“The affect of the ‘stand your ground’ law is crucial. If this law was more aptly named, it should be called ‘leave no witness behind,’” he said. “It should be named ‘dead men tell no tales,’ because, really that’s the effect of the law.”
The law is confusing to both laypersons and lawyers alike, Howe said, but people in every community should learn about it to protect themselves legally and literally. He said the law was supposed to be an extension of the castle doctrine which allows a person to defend his or her home or car without a duty to retreat if there is an intruder. Instead, it allows a person to “stand” his or her ground anywhere, even if there is no immediate threat.
State Attorney Dave Aronberg said at the luncheon that voters should hold elected officials accountable when it comes to changing this law. “The legislature remains [resistant] about changes to the ‘stand your ground law,’” he said. “I would hope elected legislators would talk to the people to find out how problems to this law can be fixed. After all, that is their job.”
The Dunn verdict exacerbated concerns about inequality in the judicial system but his sentencing on the other charges on which he was found guilty may restore of a sense of justice for the families, Aronberg said. “I think he will likely get a very stiff sentence and that is going to perhaps restore a measure of justice to the victims,” he said.
Dunn is expected to be retried on the first-degree murder charge.
“He will likely spend the rest of his life in prison, although I realize there’s still that looming issue of first-degree murder hanging over his head,” Aronberg said.
Edith Bush, executive director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Coordinating Committee, said the killing of Trayvon and Jordan and the outcomes of the trials shows that the journey to racial equality is not over. “It’s definitely a setback. It’s almost like racism is an incurable disease,” Bush said. “The judicial system allowed [those verdicts]. We need leaders to step up and protest.”
Aronberg said the advocacy groups vying to change the law, such as those in Monday’s march and rally, have largely been minorities and their representatives. He said he believes ultimately there will be changes to the law but the Legislature moves slowly, especially when it deals with tightening gun laws.
Howe said tragedies like the Trayvon and Jordan killings will continue as long as the law is in place. “You’re going to see [incidents like these] over and over and over again,” he said. “It’s ‘Groundhog Day’ in America because history keeps going in a circle.”
Similar sentiments were shared when protestors rallied on the Capitol steps across from the state Supreme Court Monday, the Associated Press reported.
“To have laws that tell people that they can shoot first and then ask questions later is a violation of our civil rights. I believe that law is inherently wrong,” Sharpton said before the march began. “The law in effect says based on your imagination: If you imagine I’m a threat, you have the right to kill me.”
“What the law is actually saying is this country doesn’t value the life of black and brown kids. We want our kids to understand their lives are equal value of anybody else life.”
Florida’s Republican-dominated Legislature has declined calls for substantial changes to the law which was enacted in 2005. Democrats have filed bills to repeal or amend the measure in recent years.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown of Jacksonville called for change as she addressed the rally.
“I’ve never seen a perfect bill and changes need to happen with this bill,” Brown told Associated Press afterwards. “When they started, it had good intentions: Protect your castle. But they have extended it to ‘you don’t like the color of my dress and you feel threatened after you start a fight.’ There’s something wrong with that.”
“This is [Gov Rick Scott’s] opportunity to really show that he’s a leader for all Floridians, not just the few,” said state Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee. “This was the first state that implemented ‘stand your ground.’ this should be the first state to repeal ‘stand your ground.’”