Gabriel Mobley had long claimed self-defense in fatally shooting two unarmed men – one of whom he insisted appeared to be reaching for a weapon under his shirt – during a 2008 scuffle outside a North Miami-Dade restaurant.
On Thursday, a Miami-Dade appeals court agreed.
In a decision under Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground self-defense law, the court ordered the dismissal of Mobley’s murder charges, saying he acted reasonably because the slain men, though apparently unarmed, were the aggressors.
“The shooting at issue did not occur in a vacuum,” Third District Court of Appeals Judge Linda Ann Wells wrote in the 2-1 opinion. “Mobley did not shoot two innocent bystanders who just happened upon him on a sidewalk.”
The ruling, which for now clears the Opa-locka man of killing Jason Jesus Gonzalez and Rolando Carrazana, marks the first time the local appeals court has granted immunity to a defendant under the Stand Your Ground law.
Miami-Dade prosecutors say they will appeal the decision, eventually to the Florida Supreme Court. If the ruling stands, no jury will ever get to consider whether Mobley, 38, acted in self-defense.
“This is what is so frustrating about the way the law is structured,” said Miami-Dade Chief Assistant State Attorney Kathleen Hoague. “It is devastating for the victims’ families. They never get to have their day in court before a jury.”
Mobley’s defense attorneys, however, hailed the ruling. They said it was Gonzalez and Carranza who were the aggressors, not Mobley.
“Anyone who says that Mr. Mobley had other options or time to make a long, thought-out decision before using force, has never been in that unthinkable situation — where the possibility of never again seeing your family hinges on your split-second reaction to two violent attackers,” said lawyer Eduardo Pereira.
Mobley’s case was always seen as a key test of the controversial law, which eliminated a citizen’s “duty to retreat” before using lethal force in the face of a deadly threat or great bodily harm.
Critics say the Florida law, and similar ones across the country, promote a shoot-first vigilante culture that allows criminals a pass on justice.
The law came under national scrutiny last year when police initially refused to charge neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, who claimed self-defense in killing an unarmed Miami Gardens teen, Trayvon Martin, during a fight in Sanford.
Zimmerman was eventually charged with second-degree murder, and was acquitted by a jury last summer.
In the wake of Trayvon’s death, civil rights activists have fought to revoke the law, though a bill to repeal the statute failed in November.
More vexing for prosecutors, the law also gave judges greater leeway to throw out criminal charges — before a jury trial — if they deem someone acted in self-defense.
In Miami-Dade, judges so far have used the law to grant immunity to four people charged in separate murder cases. Mobley’s case is the first time a Miami-Dade appeals court has weighed to overrule a lower court judge and extend immunity.
The encounter that sparked the shooting happened in February 2008 while Mobley and several female friends were unwinding at a Chili’s restaurant at 5705 NW 173rd Dr. Carranza and Gonzalez were also there, drinking at the bar.
When Mobley and pal Jose “Chico” Correa went outside to smoke, they returned to find Gonzalez and Carranza trying to chat with the young women. A brief argument ensued. Mobley, the appeals court pointed out, acted as a “peacemaker” between the two groups.
But Gonzalez and Carranza continued to give them dirty looks. They left, but moments later, began “banging aggressively” on the windows of the restaurant and pointing at Mobley and Correa.
Some 20 minutes later, Mobley and Correa were smoking cigarettes outside the restaurant. Mobley, still nervous from the commotion earlier, had fetched his Glock pistol from the glove compartment.
Suddenly, Gonzalez appeared out of nowhere, delivering a “vicious punch” to the face of Correa, fracturing his eye socket, the court noted. Gonzalez danced backward, his arms raised as if to taunt the men.
Seconds later, Carranza appeared rushing toward the men.
“I was scared, and then I seen this other guy coming up from the back and then he reached up under his shirt so I was scared,” Mobley testified at an immunity hearing in January 2012. “I thought, you know, they were going to shoot or kill us.”
Neither men was armed with a gun. Mobley, who had a concealed weapons permit, fired a volley of bullets, mortally wounding both men.
Mobley cooperated fully with police.
The appeals court ruled that it “may have been prudent” for Mobley and Correa to “skitter to their cars and hightail it out of there when they had the chance.” But the men had every right to be outside the Chili’s and “did nothing to precipitate this violent attack.”
Prosecutors charged Mobley months later, after carefully reviewing surveillance footage that depicted the episode.
Last year, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Thomas Rebull refused to dismiss the murder charges. In his order, he said Mobley’s testimony was not credible and that his use of deadly force was “neither reasonable nor necessary.”
Rebull’s decision meant that the case would go before a jury, with Mobley being able to argue self defense to the jurors. In a dissent Thursday, appeals court judge Vance E. Salter defended Rebull‘s decision.
But the majority ruled that “Mobley’s use of deadly force was justified.”