After a Tampa Bay Times' review of 200 cases that involved the controversial "Stand Your Ground" law found an "uneven application" and "shocking outcomes," one Florida lawmaker is seeking to impede the media's ability to scrutinize the law.
Earlier this month, state Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fort Walton Beach) filed an amendment that would "severely limit access to court records in the self-defense cases," the Times' Michael van Sickler reports.
The amendment would allow those found innocent in a Stand Your Ground case to "apply for a certificate of eligibility to expunge the associated criminal history record."
Gaetz said his amendment was unrelated to the Times' Stand Your Ground investigation, the Associated Press reports. "The point is to ensure that someone who appropriately uses a Stand Your Ground defense doesn't have their life ruined by the use of that defense," he said.
Gaetz's amendment has sparked concern among journalists, Media Matters reports, who say the loss of access to public records could have damaging effects. Alongside statements from editors at the Miami Herald and Florida Times-Union are the opinions of staff who worked on the groundbreaking review by the Times:
"Closing records and putting controversial cases that involve violence into the dark is a bad idea, it is against democracy," said Neil Brown, Times editor and vice president. "This would have inhibited our work further. Our work was done based on court records as well as the stories of the incidents when they occurred."
The Times coverage was named a finalist for the Online News Association's Knight Award for Public Service and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism's Taylor Award for Fairness in Journalism. The investigation has played a key role in informing other outlets' coverage of cases relating to Stand Your Ground statutes.
It utilized hundreds of court and arrest records to reveal that the law was being interpreted in many different ways and being applied without a uniform approach, according to Kris Hundley, one of the three Times reporters who worked on the project.
"If those were expunged, I don't know how you would ever do any kind of meaningful look back at the law," Hundley said. "I think it was important because it gave people a sense of how it was applied across the state, how judges made different decisions faced with similar cases and the wide variety of cases in which it was employed. It showed the law was being expanded to far beyond what the legislators anticipated and (was) applied unevenly."
Marion Hammer, a former NRA national president who founded and heads the organization's Florida chapter, said the amendment is about protecting individuals who defend themselves within the law.
"It's overreach on the media's part to think they need to know everything about everybody's life," Hammer, who personally crafted the proposal that would become Stand Your Ground, told the Times/Herald. "The media wants to know this so they can create news. Privacy is an important thing in America. When people are wronged it should be repaired, and it shouldn't be anybody's business."
The bill to which the amendment is attached -- which would extend Stand Your Ground immunity to those who fire warning shots during a confrontation -- has sailed through the Florida House.
The warning shot measure has enjoyed some bipartisan support in light of the high-profile case of Marissa Alexander. The Jacksonville woman was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing what she said was a warning shot into her own ceiling during a confrontation with her estranged husband. (An appeals court has ruled Alexander will get a new trial.)
But some Democrats are unhappy with the proposed expansion of Stand Your Ground. One local lawmaker asserted that the law has harmed black residents, and the Times study found that shooters who cited Stand Your Ground were more likely to prevail when the victim was black. Rep. Alan Williams (D-Tallahassee), who filed a repeal of Stand Your Ground last fall, has argued instead, "Don't make this about color, make this about what's right and wrong. Make this about life and death."
Gaetz has already encountered resistance from Democrats, including Williams, over Stand Your Ground. Last fall, Florida Republicans seemed to concede to public opposition when they agreed to hold hearings on the law. Gaetz, who was appointed to chair the meetings, announced before the hearings began that he did not "support changing one damn comma of the 'Stand Your Ground' law," and characterized any changes as "reactionary and dangerous" and protestors as "uninformed."
"So much for an objective review of the law's unintended consequences," wrote the Orlando Sentinel's editorial board at the time.
The Senate's version of the warning shot bill is expected to see a vote this week. Here are some of the cases Gaetz doesn't want you -- or us -- to see:
Michael Palmer and Timothy McTigue got into a fight in Rivera Beach, during which McTigue claimed Palmer tried to drown him. McTigue then fatally shot Palmer in the back of the head while Palmer was climbing out of the water. McTigue was acquitted.
Greyston Garcia saw Pedro Roteta stealing a stereo from his truck in Miami. He pursued Roteta, who swung a bag of car stereos at Garcia, according to surveillance video. Garcia chased, then fatally stabbed Roteta, went home, hid the knife, and sold two of the stolen stereos. A Miami-Dade judge cited the Stand Your Ground law in dismissing the case against Garcia. Months later, Garcia was killed by a stray bullet in a random Liberty City shootout.
In Brandon, 70-year-old Ralph Wald walked in on former neighbor Walter Conley having sex with Wald's wife. After fatally shooting Conley, Wald claimed that although Conley had lived nearby, he did not recognize him and thought a stranger was raping his wife. Wald was acquitted after a two-hour deliberation. His defense team invoked Stand Your Ground, according to the Tampa Bay Times, and noted that "Wald had 'no duty to retreat' when facing perceived danger within his own home."
Kenneth Allen was upset that Clearwater neighbor Jason Rosenbloom had placed eight rather than the allowed six trash bags on their curb. The two men got into a verbal dispute. As Rosenbloom approached, Allen shot him once in the stomach and once in the chest, claiming Rosenbloom had tried to enter his home. Allen was not charged, police believing his self-defense claims. "Had it been a year and a half ago, he could have been arrested for attempted murder,” Rosenbloom said of how the then-new Stand Your Ground law affected the case.
Jackson Fleurimon shot and killed Lucus Termitus, claiming that Termitus had shown up at his Orlando apartment brandishing a gun. Fleurimon's girlfriend told police that Fleurimon shot Termitus because he told him not to "sell dope on my side of the complex." Fleurimon was granted immunity under Stand Your Ground.
Tony Hayward was delivering newspapers in West Palm Beach when, he said, Jyron Miles approached him. Hayward claimed he thought Miles was reaching for a gun so he shot him. Hayward was acquitted.
In Hudson, Anthony Boglino, 64, was in an argument with Haigh Frank Kopain, 36, when he said he felt threatened. He claimed his arthritis prevented him from otherwise defending himself, so he shot his pistol, wounding Kopain. Boglino was acquitted under the Stand Your Ground law.
A neighborhood dispute over dogs in Homosassa turned deadly when Oscar Delbono shot Shane Huse as Huse's two young children watched from his truck. Witnesses say that Huse had turned to walk away when Delbono fire his gun. Delbono was not charged with a crime. "It is a tragic, unfortunate set of circumstances that occurred, but given the state of the law there's no criminal prosecution," said Assistant State Attorney Pete Magrino, according to the Tampa Bay Times, citing Citrus Daily.
Tampa neighbors said that Carlos Ibanez, a Seventh Day Adventist, had been acting out, pounding on car windows and apartment doors when Marcos A. Trujillo shot and killed him. Trujillo was not charged.
A Miami mother told her 14-year-old son, Jack Davis, to "get the gun" when they spotted a man trying to steal their waverunner from the dock, according to 911 calls. Davis shot and killed Reynaldo Munoz, who the family claimed had threatened them. A former teacher of Munoz said that was impossible because Monuz was deaf and could not speak clearly. Davis was not charged.
Anthony Gonzalez Jr. fatally shot Sujaye Henry in a Miami marijuana deal dispute that led to a car chase and shootout. Gonzalez pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to three years in prison. "The limitations imposed on us by the 'stand your ground' law made it impossible for any prosecutor to pursue murder charges," said a spokesman for the Miami-Dade prosecutor's office.
A gang shootout in Tallahassee left 15-year-old Michael Jackson dead. Two rival gang members were granted immunity under Stand Your Ground. "A spokeswoman for Florida's Attorney General says in this case, the court made a decision about whether the defendants had a right to defend themselves regardless of whether they were gang members," according to WCTV.
Miami's Ernesto Che Vino fired at two Florida Power & Light workers who had entered his yard to cut power due to unpaid bills. A judge tossed out two counts of armed assault and one count of improper exhibition of a firearm, saying that under Stand Your Ground, Vino had a reasonable fear for his life.
Seth Browning, a 23-year-old security guard in Palm Harbor, was concerned about Brandon Baker's driving and followed him to get his tag number. Baker pulled over and confronted Browning, who police say sprayed Baker with pepper spray. Browning said Baker then reached in and punched him, prompting Browning to pull out his company-issued gun and fatally shoot Baker. Browning was not charged. "The bottom line is, this was justifiable use of deadly force," Assistant State Attorney Bill Loughery told Palm Harbor Patch.
Tyrone Anthony Jackson was in an altercation with Etti Miezan at a Tampa birthday party. Jackson reportedly went to his car to get his gun and came back to start randomly shooting into the street. Miezan was injured while trying to evade his shots. Jackson was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.