A Florida task force convened by Gov. Rick Scott to examine the state's controversial Stand Your Ground law is scheduled to have its first public meeting on Tuesday.
The meeting comes amid lingering public angst and media interest over the wide discretion the Stand Your Ground law allows for the use deadly force in self-defense, and a slew of recent shootings in which people have attempted to invoke the law as a legal defense.
The 19-member Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection was formed in the wake of the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in late February, when neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman claimed self-defense in the fatal shooting of Martin, who was unarmed. Police initially declined to arrest Zimmerman, saying that he had a legal right to defend himself. Under the law, people have "no duty to retreat" when there is a "fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm."
Zimmerman, 28, was arrested and charged with second-degree murder in Martin’s death 44 days after the shooting. But the apparent protections that the law afforded to Zimmerman, who shot Martin under what Martin's family and supporters claim were dubious circumstances, drew new attention to the 7-year-old law and others like it across the country.
On Tuesday, Martin's parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, plan to lead a march and rally to the church in Longwood where the meeting will be held. Once there, they plan on hand-delivering a petition signed by 340,000 people urging the law's reform or repeal, according to reports.
Critics say the law is ambiguously written, which has consequently allowed for its misapplication. They point to the Martin case and others, including the case of Marissa Alexander, a Jacksonville mother of three who was sent to prison for 20 years for firing what she claimed was a warning shot at her abusive husband.
"You have prostitutes shooting their johns and availing themselves to this law," state Sen. Chris Smith said during a public meeting in May. "You have gang members having shootouts and availing themselves of this law. You have people chasing someone a block down the street stabbing someone to death and availing themselves of this law. I think those points need to be clarified."
The Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection has also been criticized for its members. Some of those on the board are supporters of Scott, and according to reports, four members of the panel voted for the bill in 2005 when it was passed by the legislature.
Others have said that political pressure created by the outrage surrounding the Martin case could make any edict from the panel a politically loaded one.
"This is politically very dicey," Lance Stell, a philosophy of law professor at Davidson College told the Christian Science Monitor. "It's inflamed people who are very sensitive that there not be a racial dimension to violence and that it not be seen to authorize people to just shoot each other because of ... hatred."
"[T]he incentives are for [the panel] to say something and for it to look substantive; otherwise, they'll face allegations that this is a whitewash," Stell said.
The task force is led by Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, a black Republican who is both a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Rifle Association.
"Though on face [sic] you have selected a mixed group, in reality the lawmakers chosen for this task force all represent a singular viewpoint, having all voted [for] and/or co-sponsored the bill that would become the 'Stand Your Ground' statute," state Rep. Dwight Bullard (D) of Miami wrote in a letter to Scott.
Carroll has countered the critics, saying the panel is balanced, adding that the task force would not be taking on the merits of the Martin case but the law's broader application.
"Out of the 19 total members on this task force, I am unaware of the other 15 members' position on this law or if they favor or disfavor gun laws. So it is a mischaracterization for anyone to presume that this task force is not balanced," Carroll said during the task force's first meeting in May.
"This task force is not here to try the Zimmerman-Martin case," she added. "We are charged to review the public safety law and make recommendations. This law is not about race. This law is not specific to any one area in our state or person. It can apply to any Floridian in any area of the state."
Task force member Derek E. Bruce, an attorney in Orlando, told The Huffington Post on Monday that the public meeting should give the panel its first taste of "the meat and potatoes" of its mission. And that he fully expects Gov. Scott and the state legislature to listen carefully to its recommendations.
"I can't speak for everyone on the task force, but I certainly hope that by stepping forward as the governor has, that he said he wanted us to do a full-scale review and come back with recommendations," said Bruce. "I wouldn't want to invest the type of time and energy into an effort that I have, and I certainly wouldn't do it, if I thought there wasn't the possibility of something fruitful and beneficial to come from it."
"As with any law that is passed, there may be some wiggle room or ambiguity or some clarity that needs to be fleshed out through court cases or court decisions over time," Bruce said of the review of the law. "That's what's happening with this now, as the governor empanelled this task force, to look at where there are ways to clarify the law, tighten it even more to make certain that it contributes to the safety of every resident, citizen and visitor to the state of Florida."
State Sen. Gary Siplin, another task force member, told the Huffington Post that he voted for the law in 2005, which sailed through the State Legislature with bi-partisan majorities, a year after a rash of hurricanes and looters drew fear from constituents.
“There’d been a lot of looting and people were taking advantage of folks. That was a big issue after four hurricanes hit in 2004 that we tried to deal with,” Siplin told HuffPost. “The whole Senate, blacks folks, all black Senators, all white Senators, all Democrats, all Republicans, all Jewish and Catholic Senators. We All voted for the bill.”
Now, he said, it is time to reexamine a law in which he said has been used in the defense of whites more so than blacks. “We’re going to examine this law and others to see if there is a [racial] trend here, and if so, we’re going to have to address it.”
Federal officials are also looking more closely at the Stand Your Ground laws. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is investigating what role race might play in the law's enforcement in Florida and in the nearly two dozen states across the nation with similar laws.
"We need to make sure claims of justifiable homicide are not being granted or denied because of the color of someone's skin," Michael Yaki, a member of the Commission on Civil Rights, told USA Today.
The newspaper cited an analysis by John Roman of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, who surveyed homicides in the U.S. from 2005 to 2009.
Roman said that killings were twice as likely to be ruled justifiable in states with Stand Your Ground laws. According to FBI statistics, 34 percent of cases that involved a white shooter killing a black person during that time period were deemed justifiable under the law. But when a black shooter killed a white victim, the killing was deemed justifiable only 3 percent of the time.
"The numbers are so different, it's absolutely worth doing a study to figure this out," Roman told the paper.
Meanwhile, recent investigative reports out of Florida have called attention to a troubling pattern in the application of the state's Stand Your Ground law.
The Tampa Bay Times identified nearly 200 "stand your ground" cases through media reports, court records and interviews with prosecutors and defense attorneys, and found that the application of the law and its outcomes seem to skew along racial lines.
According to the report, nearly 70 percent of those who have invoked a Stand Your Ground defense have gone free. Of those who killed a black person, 73 percent faced no punishment, compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white person. Some went free after killing unarmed people. Others shot people in the back and were not penalized, according to the report.
The Times continued:
Florida's "stand your ground'' law has allowed drug dealers to avoid murder charges and gang members to walk free. It has stymied prosecutors and confused judges. It has also served its intended purpose, exonerating dozens of people who were deemed to be legitimately acting in self-defense. Among them: a woman who was choked and beaten by an irate tenant and a man who was threatened in his driveway by a felon.
Seven years since it was passed, Florida's "stand your ground" law is being invoked with unexpected frequency, in ways no one imagined, to free killers and violent attackers whose self-defense claims seem questionable at best.
Cases with similar facts show surprising -- sometimes shocking -- differences in outcomes. If you claim "stand your ground" as the reason you shot someone, what happens to you can depend less on the merits of the case than on who you are, whom you kill and where your case is decided.
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