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Florida killing raises questions about 'stand your ground' laws

The uproar over a black teen's shooting by a crime-watch volunteer has even some backers of such statutes saying they may need to be altered.

March 25, 2012|By Tina Susman and Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times

"He did what he had to do — why is he doing 10 years?" Thomas said of his son. "My son had a court order of protection. The other guy had a gun too." Speaking of Zimmerman, he said: "If it was the other way around and that guy was black, he'd already be like my son and shipped off to prison."

But Arthur Hayhoe, director of the Florida Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, who monitors "stand your ground" cases, said the "stupid law" rather than racism is the problem because it opens the door for anyone to claim self-defense.

"It has nothing to do with self-defense. It's just expanding the use of self-defense to justify shooting Uncle Joe in the backyard because you don't like his barbecue," Hayhoe said. He sees police and prosecutors as among the unintended victims of the law because it hinders their ability to bring charges and opens them up to allegations of racism and incompetence.

"These are the people who have to administer this stupid law," said Hayhoe, who said the law has accomplished what the National Rifle Assn. wanted — protecting gun-owners' rights — but with unintended consequences underscored by Martin's death. (The NRA did not return calls seeking comment.)

The Sanford case is one of at least 18 that Hayhoe has documented in Florida in which there were no eyewitnesses and the killers went free based on "stand your ground."

According to Florida state records, legally justifiable homicides by private citizens — not law enforcement officers — have risen steadily under the "stand your ground" law. In 2010, there were 40; in 2004, there were eight. FBI statistics on justifiable homicides nationwide show similar increases, from 196 in 2005 to 278 in 2010.

"Justifiable homicide" would include McKinley's shooting of the home invader; but it also covers a 2007 case in Texas, where Joe Horn, then 61, shot dead two men he spotted breaking into his neighbor's house. "You're dead!" Horn howled before opening fire, as a 911 operator urged him not to. A grand jury refused to indict him, citing that state's "stand your ground" law.

Last week, a Miami judge cited "stand your ground" in throwing out manslaughter charges against a man who chased a suspected burglar more than a block and stabbed him to death. The Miami Herald described Ervens Ford, the police sergeant who supervised the investigation, as "floored" by the decision.

The killing occurred in January, the same month a retired sheriff's deputy shot and wounded an unarmed homeless man in a Haagen-Dazs shop in Miami Lakes, Fla. The shooter was not charged, based on his "stand your ground" claim that the man was threatening his family.

"It's an obscene law and a license to kill," said Barbara Standard, whose 46-year-old son, Scott Sumner Standard, was shot to death in January 2011 outside his house in Ozello, Fla. The neighbor who killed him claimed self-defense, saying Standard had thrown a rock at his truck's windshield.

And former Florida Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, who signed the "stand your ground" legislation into law, said Saturday he doubted it would apply in Zimmerman's case. "'Stand your ground' means 'stand your ground.' It doesn't mean chase after somebody who's turned their back," he said while visiting a university in Texas.

But it is not that simple, said Friday, the Jacksonville defense attorney. He cited the recent case of a driver who shot a carjacker who had hopped into his vehicle's passenger seat. Without the "stand your ground law," the driver might have faced charges because he shot the man in the back.

"Just because somebody turns away doesn't mean they're retreating — they may just be looking for a better position to shoot you from," Friday said in defending the driver's actions.

Susman reported from Sanford and Hennessy-Fiske from Los Angeles.

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