Jordan Beswick ran out the front door, circled around to the back of his townhouse, waited, then ambushed a burglar trying to escape through a bedroom window. Citing Florida’s nebulous self-defense law, his lawyer claimed it was a righteous kill. Beswick stood his ground.
It happened last Monday evening. The Herald’s David Ovalle reported that Beswick, gun at the ready, surprised a burglar breaking into the northeast Miami-Dade townhouse where he lived with his mother. Beswick fired seven shots, chasing the unarmed intruder into a back bedroom.
It was then that Beswick stretched the definition of “standing” his ground. The 19-year-old ran around to the backyard, waited there in the dark for about three minutes, then let loose another volley — police say at least eight shots — when the burglar appeared in the rear window.
A petty criminal named Bryan Antonio DeJesus, 22, fell back into the bedroom, fatally shot.
Police charged Beswick with second degree murder. (Audrey Lewis, Beswick’s mother, told Ovalle on Saturday that their home had been broken into in August. She insisted that her son was protecting their property).
At his preliminary hearing on Thursday, Beswick’s defense lawyer argued that his client “had the absolute right to defend himself inside his own home.”
Except Beswick wasn’t actually “inside his own home” when the fatal shooting occurred. He didn’t pause to call the police. He fired the second round of gunshots at a burglar who, by then, seemed only intent on getting the hell out of there. The shooting hardly resembled what most states would classify as justifiable homicide.
But in Florida, Beswick just might have a plausible defense.
His lawyer, Gawane Grant, cited our infamous Stand Your Ground law, the 2005 revamp of the state’s self-defense law so loosely written that its interpretation seems to vary from county to county, courtroom to courtroom.
Under Stand Your Ground, the shooter is “presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm” when: “The person against whom the defensive force was used was in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering, or had unlawfully and forcibly entered, a dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle.”
Doesn’t matter if the intruder’s unarmed, unthreatening and hell bent on retreat, he’s still “presumed to be doing so with the intent to commit an unlawful act involving force or violence.”
In this case, a judge must now decide whether this presumption still applied after Beswick left his home and took up a stealthy position outside the rear window, ready to shoot. Of course, DeJesus was still inside the premises. Maybe that small technicality provides enough cover to exempt young Beswick from prosecution. Certainly, killers with even more tenuous self-defense claims have found sanctuary in the elastic presumptions of Stand Your Ground.
In 2009, a gangbanger firing from the passenger seat of a car in a high-speed rolling shootout along Old Cutler Road managed to kill the driver in the other car. Yet, the shooter dodged a murder charge, thanks to Stand Your Ground. In 2011, 26-year-old Greyston Garcia chased a car burglar down a Liberty City block and stabbed him to death. A judge, invoking Stand Your Ground, shrugged off the killing as justifiable homicide. Garcia walked.
The clumsily written self-defense revamp was passed in 2005 at the behest of the NRA even though the jury system had been doing a fine job of keeping folks with a justifiable self-defense claim from going to prison. But the new law now allows a defendant to raise Stand Your Ground arguments, and a demand for dismissal, at a pre-trial hearing. Getting rid of jurors eliminated a lot of common sense from the proceedings.
Judicial decisions, under the new law, have varied wildly.
Last month, a Broward judge decided that James Patrick Wonder, 70, couldn’t escape homicide charges via Stand Your Ground. Wonder, who was physically frail, had shot down 52-year-old Donald Pettit in Pembroke Pines back in 2008 after Pettit had chased him down in a road rage incident, exited his car and angrily approached the older man. Yet, the judge stated, “The Court finds that Wonder unreasonably assumed that Pettit was a thug and that Pettit, although angry and yelling at Wonder, made no physical threats or verbal statements that could be reasonably interpreted to indicate that violence was imminent.”
Wonder, of course, claimed to be terrified. Which would have been enough in some courtrooms. But his real problem was that Pettit was an off-duty (and out of uniform) U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent. If Wonder had been chased down by, say, an unemployed 20-year-old black kid, I’m guessing Stand Your Ground would have done the trick.
Certainly, defendants with less compelling arguments than James Wonder have escaped prosecution. Of course, when the law was passed, there was some fanciful notion that it would protect folks who, well, looked a lot like the NRA membership. You know. Law abiding gun-owners who only employ deadly force protecting themselves, their homes or their loved ones.
But a Tampa Bay Times analysis of actual Stand Your Ground cases (the newspaper was able to identify about 200) last summer indicated that the law more often provides a dandy legal defense for shady characters. The Times found that about 60 percent of those invoking Stand Your Ground had a previous criminal record. Forty percent had been arrested three or more times. About of third of those had been charged with violent crimes. Dozens had been up on drug charges.
About 70 percent of the killers invoking Stand Your Ground went free, including a shooter who killed two unarmed people and another who shot a man lying helpless on the ground. Other victims had been shot in the back. In a third of the cases, the defendants escaped prosecution although they initiated the fatal confrontation or pursued the victim or shot an unarmed person.
After the killing of young, unarmed Trayvon Martin in Sanford last year, another case muddled by Stand Your Ground, Gov. Rick Scott appointed a task force to study the controversial self-defense law. After six months, the task force came back with only a few tepid, minor recommendations.
The task force found nothing much wrong with the law. More than a few killers, standing their bloody ground, feel the same way.