DEERFIELD BEACH — A stand-your-ground community forum last Thursday covered a range of topics but returned to a handful of themes: the law’s mixed message to children, the importance of political engagement and the black community’s taking responsibility for itself.
It was the second stand-your-ground forum organized by Terry D. Scott, community activist and president/CEO of Deerfield Beach-based Community Reaching Youth Inc.
Panelists included local and state leaders, who addressed a largely black, middle-aged crowd at Cathedral Church of God.
In opening comments, Broward County Judge Kathleen McHugh said the stand-your-ground law, which the Legislature passed with little opposition in 2005, was a partial response to several mass shootings in public places and a “public outcry for the government to protect its people.”
“The government’s answer has been, ‘We’re going to allow you to protect yourself in any place where you’re lawfully allowed to be. If you’re confronted with deadly force, you will in fact be able to respond with force,’” McHugh said to the roughly 150 people in attendance.
Panelist Devon A. O’Neal, an assistant principal at Deerfield Beach Middle School, said he often considers the law in relation to his students. When children get in fights with one another, or if they attack an adult, is stand-your-ground ever justified, he wondered aloud.
“We have to educate and protect our kids,” O’Neal said. “If they don’t know the law, they can be prosecuted for … arcane laws that shouldn’t be on the books.”
Although defense attorneys should explore every possible defense, the law sends children a mixed message, Gordon Weekes, Broward County’s chief assistant to the public defender, said.
Weekes noted a recent appellate court decision that found a child could stand his ground, even on a school bus.
“The dilemma is real because if a child can stand their ground on a school bus, they can clearly stand their ground in a school,” Weekes said. “The law is telling children not to avoid confrontation but … to stand their ground and fight it out.”
Next month, House Speaker Will Weatherford plans to hold a subcommittee hearing to address the legislation’s effectiveness; however, his appointed committee chairman, Rep. Matt Gaetz, is opposed to changing the law.
“If it was up to me, I would repeal it,” said Michael Satz, Broward State Attorney.
Absent repeal, Satz suggested eliminating the immunity provision, which Broward County Judge Ilona Holmes called a “mini-trial,” in which a judge determines whether the person claiming stand-your-ground self-defense is immune from criminal and civil lawsuits. Satz also suggested considering the ability to retreat when determining whether deadly force is reasonable.
However, the law will not change as long as people in key positions refuse to act, said state Rep. Gwyndolen Clarke-Reed, who delivered rousing remarks on the need to locate power and voice displeasure by voting and communicating local needs to elected officials.
“The person that can veto the bill?” Clarke-Reed said. “That is the person who has authority.”
In response to an audience question on why jury pools often don’t look like their communities, Holmes castigated the crowd: “You gotta show up and be a part of the process,” she said.
The forum, whose panelists also included Broward County Judge Christopher Pole and Cathedral Church of God senior pastor Bishop Patrick Kelly, wrapped up with a discussion of black-on-black crime.
Ruth Gillion of Deerfield Beach said her 22-year-old grandson was shot 13 times by a black assailant who successfully used stand-your-ground as a defense. She criticized Deerfield police for not willingly sharing information with her or, she said, caring enough about gun violence between blacks.
“We’re trained to be police and we don’t present ourselves sometimes as humans,” said Lt. Col. William Knowles, whose brother is chaplain of the Broward Sheriff’s Office. “We have to teach our deputies to have that human aspect … when you’re dealing with bereavement.”