“We’re seeing a good law that’s being abused,” Chitwood told a local paper.
Disparities have been driven in part by vague wording in the 2005 law that has left police, prosecutors and judges struggling to interpret it.
It took five years for the Florida Supreme Court to decide that judges should base immunity decisions on the preponderance of evidence.
Still unresolved is whether a defendant can get immunity if he illegally has a gun. And courts are divided on what the law is when a victim is retreating.
David Heckman of Tampa lost his bid for “stand your ground” protection because his victim was walking away when Heckman shot him.
“We conclude that immunity does not apply because the victim was retreating,” the court said.
But Jimmy Hair, who was sitting in a car when he was attacked, was treated differently. He shot his victim as the man was being pulled from the vehicle. An appeals court gave him immunity.
While many have argued the law does not allow someone to pick a fight and claim immunity, it has been used to do just that. It is broad enough that one judge complained that in a Wild West-type shootout, where everybody is armed, everyone might go free.
Anthony Gonzalez Jr. was part of a 2010 drug deal that went sour when someone threatened him with a gun. Gonzalez chased the man down and killed him during a high-speed gun battle through Miami streets.
Before the “stand your ground” law, Miami-Dade prosecutors would have had a strong murder case because Gonzalez could have retreated instead of chasing the other vehicle.
But Gonzalez’s lawyer argued he had a right to be in his car, was licensed to carry a gun and thought his life was in danger.
Soon after the filing of a “stand your ground” motion, prosecutors agreed to a deal in which Gonzalez pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter and got three years in prison.
“This is certainly a very difficult thing to tell a grieving family member,” said Griffith of the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office.
Donald Day is a Naples defense lawyer who has handled three “stand your ground” cases and believes the law is working “remarkably well.”
Day said the immunity hearings are a critical backstop in self-defense cases that should never go to a jury. Of the cases in The Times’ database that have been resolved, 23 percent were dismissed by a judge after an immunity hearing. That means 38 defendants facing the prospect of a jury trial were set free by a judge who ruled the evidence leaned in their favor.
A prime example:
The case of Jorge Saavedra a 14-year-old charged with aggravated manslaughter last year in the death of Dylan Nuno. Saavadra, Day’s client, was in special education classes at Palmetto Ridge High School in Collier County and was often the target of taunts. Nuno, 16, went to the same school.
On Jan. 24, 2011, the two boys were riding the bus home. Saavedra was warned repeatedly that Nuno intended to fight with him when he got off at his regular stop.
Saavedra replied each time that he did not want to fight, but he also pulled out a pocketknife to show friends.
Saavedra got off the bus early with a friend to try to avoid a confrontation. But Nuno and his friends followed, and Nuno punched the younger boy in the back of the head.
For a while, Saavedra kept walking as he was being punched. Then he turned, reached in his pocket for the knife and stabbed Nuno 12 times.
Prosecutors pursued charges despite evidence that Saavedra tried to get away and felt cornered by an older boy and a crowd of teens shouting for a fight. They argued that because he brought a knife to a fistfight, he should be tried for murder.
Without “stand your ground,” Saavedra would likely have gone to trial. But the law required a hearing before a judge and that judge granted him immunity.
Nuno’s mother, Kim Maxwell, said her son made a bad decision to throw the first punch, but she’s incredulous that it led to his death and even more stunned that his killer went free.
Said Day: “You don’t have to wait until you’re dead before you use deadly force.”
Tampa Bay Times researchers Carolyn Edds, Caryn Baird and Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at 727-892-2996 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at 727-893-8642 or email@example.com.