Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Legacy of 'Stand Your Ground' Laws In Florida

Nicole & Chad Oulson and daughter Lexy
It's probably a fair guess that amongst the ranks of Florida's conservative-leaning state legislators, prosecutors, district attorneys and judges there has to be a measure of regret over the decision to pass the Sunshine State's infamous "Stand Your Ground" law back in 2005.

Since it was introduced, the law has been indirectly responsible for the deaths of a number of unarmed innocent people in Florida, including 17-year-old Trayvon Martin; who was stalked and murdered in 2012 by violent racist psychopath George Zimmerman.

And Chad Oulson (pictured left) a father and husband who was shot and killed inside a movie theater in January 2014 by an enraged retried Tampa police captain named Curtis Reeves.

Over, of all things, the use of a cell phone.

Reeves, then 71, made global headlines when he pulled out his handgun and shot Oulson at point blank range, wounding Oulson's wife Nicole as well, after getting upset at her husband for texting his then 22-month-old daughter's daycare center while movie previews were playing at the matinee.

After a brief verbal confrontation Reeves left to complain to a theater employee, when he came back another argument ensued and at some point Oulson reached back over the seat, grabbed Reeve's popcorn and threw it at him, Reeves then immediately shot and killed Oulson - wounding his wife.

According to the courtroom testimony of Al Hamilton, an off-duty sergeant with the Sumter County Sheriff's Office who witnessed the shooting, a stunned Nicole Oulson told Reeves the confrontation had been no cause to shoot her husband, the retired police captain pointed his finger at her and said:

"You shut your f***in' mouth and don't say another word."

Last week following two weeks of pre-trial testimony Judge Susan Barthle ruled that Reeves' lawyers cannot invoke the 'Stand Your Ground' law as a defense for his shooting Oulson.

Retired police captain Curtis Reeves
If you read the precise text of the law, it states that, in certain circumstances, Florida residents may use deadly force against someone if "A person is presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm". 

"Presumed to have held"? 

That language is dangerously ambiguous when you're talking about a law that authorizes someone to kill another person. 

Let's say you were in a movie theater and someone in front of you was texting during the previews.

While my experience is that most reasonable-minded people shut their phones off by the time the actual feature starts, I think it's fair to let someone politely know that a lit cell phone in a dark theater is distracting to others who've paid to see the film.

If that doesn't work you can always go get the manager, or worst case just ask the theater for a refund or ticket credits for another show if the texting or cell phone use gets really obnoxious.

But let's say you got into a verbal confrontation with the offending texter and they got mad and threw popcorn at you - is there any circumstance in which that would be seen as "a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm"?

Popcorn isn't lethal last time I checked, sure it would be rude for someone to throw it at you, but it's not going to kill you or anything - you just brush it off.

Unfortunately Curtis Reeves decided to fire a loaded handgun; and he killed Chad Oulson.

Michael Dunn, now serving life without parole
What's also disturbing is that he clearly knew what he was doing.

Before firing the gun, as a former police captain he knew that he could justify the shooting by invoking Florida's 'Stand Your Ground' law.

And he's not the only one.

Remember the disturbing case of Michael Dunn?

As an article published in The Nation by Kristal Brent Zook recounts, in the early evening of November 23, 2012, the day after Thanksgiving, just nine months after the Trayvon Martin shooting, the then-45 year-old Dunn was sitting in his car outside a gas station near Jacksonville, Florida when he became annoyed over loud rap music blaring from an SUV parked next to him.

Dunn asked the four teenage African-American boys inside, Jordan Davis, Lelund Brunson, Tommie Stornes and Tevin Thompson, to turn the music down - which they did.

All four were typical American kids buying cigarettes and gum before driving to the mall to try and meet girls, but in the typical headstrong manner of teens, Davis took offense at Dunn telling them to turn the music down - and he defiantly turned it back up.

Dunn reached into his glove compartment, took out his handgun and fired ten shots at point blank range directly into the interior of the SUV - killing Davis.

17-year-old Jordan Davis, killed over loud music
He too tried to float the 'Stand Your Ground' defense, even going so far as to lie to police and his lawyers about seeing the barrel of a gun in the SUV before firing.

No guns or weapons of any kind were found in the car or at the scene and Dunn was eventually tried, convicted and found guilty of the murder of Jordan and the attempted murder of the other three kids.

He's now serving life without the possibility of parole, but even after all the efforts to obtain justice for his killing, how much comfort is that to Davis family and friends including his mother Lucia McBath?

As Kristal Zook noted in her Nation article, Jordan Davis' maternal grandfather was the president of the Illinois branch of the NAACP for 20 years and played a role in persuading President Lyndon Johnson to sign the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

I think the cases of both Reeves and Dunn demonstrate the ability of Florida judges and prosecutors to recognize cases where 'Stand Your Ground' does not justify homicide.

If someone was in a movie theater and a person pulled out a semi-automatic rifle and threatened the lives of innocent people, or if someone was parked in front of a gas station or church and saw someone get out of a car with a mask on and a loaded handgun in their hand walk inside, I could see 'Stand Your Ground' being used as a justifiable defense.

But only as a last recourse, and only if there was no time to call a police officer - but regardless I think it's a dangerous idea to authorize untrained civilians to kill, period.

As I mentioned above, the text of the law is so ambiguous and it's application is often so arbitrary, that I think that the risks of having the law far outweigh the value to society of having the law on the books.

That brings to mind the case of Marissa Alexander.

Marissa Alexander and her three kids
I last blogged about this courageous single mom back on February 1, 2015 after a judge intervened to overturn the catastrophic failure of incompetent prosecutor Angela Corey - click that link to read more details.

Alexander, an African-American single mom who'd been repeatedly physically abused by her ex-husband Rico Gray, was in her own home being chased by Gray when she retrieved her legally-registered handgun to protect herself.

 Cornered by Gray, she fired a warning shot into the ceiling to keep Gray from attacking her.

Despite the fact that she only fired into the ceiling and had a legitimate claim of standing her ground, conservative prosecutor Angela Corey, the same nitwit who totally bungled the Trayvon Martin case and has faced widespread criticism for her overt racial bias against people of color, inexplicably claimed Alexander could not invoke the 'Stand Your Ground' defense.

Corey helped ensure that Alexander got a 20-year sentence for firing a shot in the air to protect herself, fortunately a grassroots campaign fueled by social media and political pressure eventually resulted in Alexander being freed.

But karma, as they say, is a bitch and Corey's effort to transform her heartless conservative zealotry into a bid for state attorney for the 4th Circuit were torpedoed in a Republican primary last August - due in large part to the public outrage she generated over failing to prosecute George Zimmerman for 2nd degree murder in the Trayvon Martin case.

As an article in USA Today reported, Floridians actually celebrated her loosing her primary bid and the well-deserved reputation for racial bias she's cultivated over the course of her prosecutorial career will follow her for the rest of her life.

Michael Giles - serving 25 years for shooting
a man in the leg who was attacking him
Interestingly, Corey's efforts to deny an African-American the right to invoke 'Stand Your Ground' as a defense are not the only example of a person of color in Florida using a gun to defend themselves and finding themselves blocked from equal access to the same law.

Even though they actually were in situations where "a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm" did in fact exist.

After serving two tours in the middle east, active-duty Airman Michael Giles came back to Tampa, Florida in the spring of 2010 when he found himself in the middle of a brawl at a nightclub.

As an article posted on the The Grio reported, Giles, then 26, had been invited to the nightclub in Tallahassee by some friends, and he became concerned for their safety in the middle of the melee started by the members of two fraternities from Florida A&M University.

The married father of three went out to his car to retrieve his handgun and put it in his pants and ran back in to find them.

After getting punched and thrown to the ground, Giles pulled out his handgun and shot his attacker in the leg to protect himself; fragments from the bullet injured three other men and Giles was arrested and charged with attempted murder even though witnesses saw the man who punched him leap over someone to attack Giles.
Giles in Liberty Correctional Facility in Bristol, FL
Giles, despite having no prior record, was denied the right to use 'Stand Your Ground' as a defense and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

So given the controversy surrounding the cases of Curtis Reeves, Michael Dunn and Marissa Alexander, in retrospect one has to wonder how the Florida legislature, or any other state legislature for that matter, could in good conscience allow 'Stand Your Ground' laws to remain on the books.

As these cases demonstrate, too often, they're being invoked as a defense for deadly decisions to use lethal force when it was not justified by people whose lives were not actually being threatened; and denied to those who invoke it who actually were being physically attacked merely because of the color of their skin.

As a 2013 Vice article examines, the strict mandatory sentencing guidelines for Florida's gun laws put both Marissa Alexander and Michael Giles in prison for using guns to defend themselves - how was it that George Zimmerman served no time after stalking, attacking and then murdering Trayvon Martin?

Does the right to claim 'Stand Your Ground' as a defense hinge upon one's race?

By the language of the law, no.

But based on the cases of Marissa Alexander, Michael Giles (and others) the question is a legitimate one - a question that it seems higher courts must at some point take the time to examine.

Especially in a nation where Republican lawmakers have made access to firearms a priority, and a Houston, Texas mom pulls a gun on another mother in the driveway in front of an elementary school with other kids around, why?

Over a disagreement over how someone was driving.

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