WASHINGTON- Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law is under intense scrutiny after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Calls to repeal the law have intensified but the controversy neatly fits into the legal community’s natural divide. Trimmel Gomes examines why prosecutors decry the law, while defense attorneys are willingly embracing it.
For weeks, Trayvon Martin supporters have been fighting for the arrest of 28-year-old George Zimmerman. He admitted pulling the trigger in the fatal shooting, but has claimed self-defense. Six weeks after the incident, Zimmerman is behind bars facing a second-degree murder charge. Now the question is whether Zimmerman will use Florida’s hotly debated “Stand Your Ground” law as his defense.
His new attorney, Mark O’Mara says it’s likely:
“It’s going to be a part or a facet of this defense I’m sure…that’s statutes has some troublesome portions to it, and we are now going to have discussions and conversations about that as a state. But right now it’s the law of Florida and it’s a law that’s going to have impact on this case.”
State Attorney Angela Corey is the Special Prosecutor investigating Martin’s death. She made the announcement Wednesday that Zimmeran turned himself into authorities.
“If stand your ground becomes an issue, we fight, if we believe it’s the right thing to do. So if it becomes an issue in this case we will fight.”
Corey was careful not to comment specifically on the law, saying her job as a prosecutor is to enforce the law of the state. But in the legal community the lines are pretty clear as far as who’s for Florida’s
“Stand Your Ground” law and who’s against it.
State Attorney Willie Meggs works in the Second Judicial Circuit, which covers Leon and surrounding North Florida counties.
“It just needs to be completely repealed. It doesn’t need to be fixed, it doesn’t need to be changed, it just needs to be repealed.”
In a recent interview on “It’s About Florida”, he said the 2005 law never made any sense to him, considering Florida’s existing self-defense statutes. He said prosecutors, sheriffs and police chiefs were all opposed the bill when it was before the legislature.
“We apparently do not have the lobbying ability that the NRA happens to have and now we’ve seen some horrific incidences that have occurred in our state that did not need to occur. We’ve seen some use of force that was totally unnecessary under SYG and people have died unnecessarily under this law.”
Meggs says in traditional self-defense situations, people should exhaust all options before resorting to deadly force. But under Stand Your Ground, a person does not have to retreat if threatened and can use
deadly force as a first, rather than final, response.
But Defense Attorney Kevin Alvarez says he thinks the law is necessary to counterbalance Florida’s strict mandatory sentencing guidelines like 10-20-Life.
“They are making it seem like Stand your ground, is letting for lack of a better word, thugs and bad people who deserve to go to prison for their conduct that’s it’s getting them off, that’s just not happening.”
Alvarez describes the law as a tool to keep those defending themselves from having to deal with the uncertainty of a trial. It essentially moves a case out of the hands of the jury and leaves it up to a judge to decide.
“I think the intent was to keep it from getting that far, to keep everybody from having to go to trial and risk that hefty sentence when a reasonable person, a reasonable judge could see you be entitled to defense in that situation, the person is out on the front porch they are wearing a mask, of course you can shoot him.”
Even before the legislature passed Stand Your Ground, Florida law recognized what’s called the “Castle Doctrine.” That allows people to protect themselves while in their homes without having to retreat in
the face of a threat. Stand Your Ground extended that right to individuals who are attacked in any place where he or she has a legal right to be. The Trayvon Martin Case has now sparked a national movement to amend, repeal or defeat similar stand your ground laws. At a news conference Wednesday, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg called them “Shoot First” laws, saying they only promote vigilantism.
“It’s now clear that these laws have undermined the integrity of the justice system…”
Democratic Senator Chris of Fort Lauderdale joined Bloomberg at the news conference in Washington; He’s heading up his own task force to find ways to amend Florida’s statute…
“There is seven years of data, seven years of misuse of this law, seven years of get out of jail free card, seven years…so the efforts by the mayor is way beyond the Trayvon Martin case…”
But for now, the law is on the books and will likely be the focus in George Zimmerman’s defense.