People came lugging photographs of slain relatives and telling gut-wrenching stories of unpunished deaths or wrongful convictions.
They’ve written some 8,000 emails and letters, many penned by hand, telling the Florida Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection a thing or two about the state’s self-defense law. One letter came from a first grader. More than 500 have called in by phone, with a majority — almost 80 percent — voicing support for the law dubbed “shoot first.”
Nearly seven months after the death of Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin, thousands of people around the state, country and even abroad have offered feedback to Florida’s Stand Your Ground task force, the panel appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to examine the controversial self defense law. About 100 have done so in person.
The group held its first Miami-Dade meeting in Cutler Bay Thursday, where the few task force members who spoke up largely displayed an unwavering commitment to the law’s principles.
Florida’s 2005 law removed the duty to retreat if a person fears great bodily harm or death from an attacker. It stipulates that a person who kills someone in such a circumstance is immune from arrest and offers a person who is criminally charged a chance to get a hearing before a judge. That judge can offer immunity, which applies in civil court as well.
With four meetings held and three more to go, cracks in the controversial statute have begun to emerge, which followers of the task force’s work say are likely to result in recommendations to clarify a law critics say is so ambiguous that some people literally have gotten away with murder.
“Repeal it. It doesn’t help,” said Ruby Mosely, of Richmond Heights. “We have a law for self defense. What was the purpose of this law?”
After a fight over 25 cents, Mosely’s son, Akil Oliver, 34, was beaten to death two years ago with a crowbar by several men who own a Perrine convenience store. Although two people were arrested, the one charged with second-degree murder is expected to turn to the Stand Your Ground law for immunity.
The 17-member task force has traveled the state since June gathering testimony from people like Mosely, experts and the public.
Thursday’s expert speakers represented civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, the Urban League and the League of United Latin American Citizens. They argue that studies indicate that laws like Stand Your Ground have a disproportionately negative effect on people of color.
Many Floridians support the law,and believe it saves law-abiding citizens from protracted criminal trials for crimes they did not commit.
The law exploded in the national press because the Sanford Police cited it as the reason neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was not initially arrested after he shot Trayvon in a scuffle. Zimmerman said it was self defense, and because there was no immediate evidence to disprove that, he went home.
A national uproar led to a special prosecutor, criminal charges — and the task force to examine the law.
“These laws distort the criminal justice system, allow aggressors to pick a fight and, if it doesn’t go their way, resort to deadly force,” said Allie Braswell, head of the Central Florida Urban League, who spoke on behalf of the Second Chance on Shoot First, a group that works to repeal such laws. “This law has so much ambiguity, it makes it hard for law enforcement to do its job.”
Braswell’s testimony was met with strong push-back by members of the panel, including Miami defense attorney Mark Seiden.
Seiden, whose wife was murdered in 1982, noted that in many of the cases distraught family members cited, an arrest was eventually made. He said the panel also needs to hear from people who successfully used the law to fight an unfair conviction.
“I don’t think the law can cover every single instance, every single situation,” he said. “The law is to protect law abiding citizens from violent attack.”
A Tampa Bay Times review showed a majority of people killed in Stand Your Ground cases were not committing a crime when the incident occurred. Most of those killed were unarmed.
The newspaper’s review also showed people were more likely to prevail in Stand Your Ground hearings if the victim was black.
The bill’s cosponsor, Rep. Dennis Baxley of Central Florida, acknowledged that the data suggest “embarrassing inequities” in the application of the law.
“We didn’t intend it to adversely or disproportionately affect individuals. Whatever their makeup is, their backgrounds, they’re Americans,” he said. “They are citizens of Florida. I am willing to work on that.”
Many of the local people who attended the public hearing portion of the meeting complained that task force organizers seemed to have gone out of their way to hold the meeting in a location where victims of inner city violence could not attend. The meeting was held 35 miles south of Trayvon’s neighborhood, an area besieged by crime.
State Rep. Barbara Watson, who represents Miami Gardens, said her district was some 400 blocks away, reachable by traveling two hours on four different buses.
She vowed to have the law repealed.
Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who chairs the committee, said the task force was doing the best it could without funding.
The meetings are streamed live on the Internet and posted, and emails are welcome, Carroll said.
“We are taking this seriously and truly want to hear input,” she said.
Supporters of Kijuan Bird say the only reason Miami-Dade police arrested the security guard who shot Byrd 11 times was because the family hired Benjamin Crump, the lawyer who helped Trayvon’s parents.
“A change must come,” said Byrd’s mother, Arlene, whose son died two months after she organized “hoodie” rallies in support of Trayvon. “Otherwise, will it be your child next? A family member? Or will it be you?”