U.S.
3:00 am
Fri March 23, 2012

'Stand Your Ground' Law In Focus After Teen's Death

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, even if the shooter, George Zimmerman, is arrested for the death of Trayvon Martin, a conviction could be hard to get because of the controversial law that Kathy mentioned in her report. Let's take a closer look at that law. It's called Stand Your Ground and it allows people to use deadly force to defend themselves when confronted with a threat of violence. It's been on the books in Florida for several years. And as NPR's Greg Allen reports from Miami, it was a source of controversy long before the Martin shooting.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Since it became law in Florida, Stand Your Ground has been an important tool for lawyers defending clients charged with homicide, especially in cases where there's a violent confrontation.

ELIZABETH MEGALE: From a defense attorney's perspective, it's a dream.

ALLEN: Elizabeth Megale should know. She's a former criminal defense attorney, now professor at Barry University Law School in Orlando. Shortly after joining the faculty there, she decided to look at the impact of Florida's new law. As a defense attorney, she says, she loved it. It made it easy to argue against charges of battery, assault, even murder, if the person charged could show they had a reasonable fear of bodily harm. Studying it as an academic, though, she says she found many flaws with the law.

MEGALE: What you were getting were circumstances where in many cases charges weren't being brought at all because the law enforcement had its hands tied in terms of what it could investigate.

ALLEN: That seems to be the case in Sanford, where police declined to arrest neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. And there are many other cases less well-known nationally but prominent in local media in Florida which turn on a Stand Your Ground defense. In Miami-Dade County, for example, prosecutors are still considering whether to charge 14-year-old Jack Davis and his mother Yasmin. Nearly a year ago, they came upon 20-year-old Reynaldo Munoz trying to steal a WaveRunner off the dock of their home in Miami Shores. Police say the 14-year-old fired a shotgun at Munoz, killing him. An attorney for the Davises says he believes prosecutors will conclude the shooting was justified under Florida's Stand Your Ground law. But attorney Juan Lucas Alvarez, who represents the family of Reynaldo Munoz, thinks otherwise.

JUAN LUCAS ALVAREZ: People are shooting first and seeking justification after.

ALLEN: Among the compelling evidence in this case, in a 911 call, Yasmin Davis says Munoz told her he had a gun, but Munoz's family and teachers say he was a deaf-mute who only communicated through sign language. Bill Eddins is a state attorney for much of Florida's panhandle and the president of the state's Prosecuting Attorney's Association. His group opposed Stand Your Ground when it was passed in 2005, and he says it's made prosecuting some homicide cases more difficult. But prosecutors, he says, have other evidence they have to consider.

BILL EDDINS: If there are witnesses that have information about the state of mind of the suspect or the victim leading up to the confrontation, you have to carefully weigh that. You also have to carefully consider any other evidence - for example, 911 calls or statements that may have been made by the suspect or the victim.

ALLEN: With the Trayvon Martin shooting, there's a movement now to reexamine Florida's Stand Your Ground law. State Senator Oscar Braynon, an African-American who represents the South Florida district where Martin's mother lives, is calling for hearings to see what the law's impact has been.

STATE SENATOR OSCAR BRAYNON: There has been an uptick, three-times the amount of justifiable homicides just since we passed the bill. So I think we may be getting some unintended consequences.

ALLEN: Florida's Governor Rick Scott has also said legislators may need to reexamine the Stand Your Ground law. But State Representative Dennis Baxley says no. He helped write Stand Your Ground. He says the problem is not with the law but with how it's being interpreted by local authorities in Sanford. Baxley says he doesn't believe George Zimmerman's behavior - following Trayvon Martin through the streets of a gated community - is covered by the law.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE DENNIS BAXLEY: There is nothing in this Florida statute that authorizes anybody to pursue and confront people. And now that we see the 911 tapes coming out indicating, where he was even told not to do that, obviously that is going to accelerate the intensity and the possibility for a violent confrontation.

ALLEN: Florida was one of the first states to adopt Stand Your Ground, but since then the idea has spread nationally. According to the Legal Community Against Violence, a group that tracks guns laws, 23 states besides Florida allow the use of deadly force and self-defense without the duty to retreat when outside of the home. Meanwhile, in Florida, scarcely a week goes by that Stand Your Ground doesn't play a role in a controversial case. While the outcry over the Trayvon Martin case grew this week, in Miami a judge dismissed murder charges against a man who chased a suspected burglar for more than a block before catching him and stabbing him to death. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.