In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Squishy parameters of Stand Your Ground law precludes jury from weighing self-defense claim

Gabriel Mobley had been standing on shaky ground.

Before the Florida Third District Court of Appeal intervened last week, the 38-year-old Opa-locka man was facing second-degree murder charges for gunning down two men in a Chili’s Bar & Grill parking lot.

In April, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Thomas Rebull had rejected Mobley’s bid for immunity from criminal prosecution and civil liability under Florida’s 2005 Stand Your Ground law. After hearing witness testimony and watching a surveillance video, Rebull ruled that the defendant’s self-defense argument was not convincing enough to preempt a jury trial. Mobley had shot the two unarmed men five times on Feb. 27, 2008.

Earlier that evening, there had been an argument inside the North Miami restaurant between several friends of Mobley and Jason Jesus Gonzalez and Rolando Carrazana, both 24. Later, the dispute reignited in the parking lot and Gonzalez punched one of Mobley’s friends in the face.

Mobley, who had left the restaurant and retrieved his (properly licensed) Glock automatic pistol from the glove compartment of his truck and holstered it under his sweat shirt, claimed that he was startled by Carranza rushing toward the scuffle. “I freaked. I was scared, and I seen this other guy coming up from the back and then he reached up under his shirt so I was scared,” the 6-2, 285-pound Mobley testified at his Stand Your Ground hearing before Judge Rebull in April. “I thought, you know, they were going to shoot or kill us or stab us or something. So I was scared.”

“Scared” becomes a magic word under the Stand Your Ground self-defense statute, which directs a judge to gauge a defendant’s fearfulness by a preponderance of the evidence, a lower standard than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” criterion a jury must reach to render a guilty verdict in a criminal trial.

Yet Judge Rebull didn’t find Mobley’s version of the circumstances credible. At least, not credible enough to invoke SYG immunity. He said Mobley’s dubious self-defense claim, instead, should be a question for a jury to decide at trial.

But two of the three judges on the appellate court panel, Judge Linda Ann Wells and Chief Judge Frank Shepherd, decided Rebull had underestimated the leeway state law grants to gunners who stand their ground. “It appears that the new law places no duty on the person to avoid or retreat from danger, so long as that person is not engaged in an unlawful activity and is located in a place where he or she has a right to be,” declared Judge Wells, who wrote the opinion. That, along with Mobley’s claim that he was frightened, in fear for his life, apparently provided the court all it needed to let him off without a trial. The appellate panel vote was 2-1.

And there’s the rub with Stand Your Ground. Two judges who’ve never laid eyes on Mobley could decide, within the squishy parameters of this statute, that his version of the events corresponded with the acts of a “reasonable and prudent” citizen. No matter that two other judges who had considered the case reached a very different conclusion.

“Regarding the facts, four judges have now split evenly on whether the defendant’s decisions to 1) take his Glock .45 out of the glove compartment of his truck, following a verbal altercation within the restaurant, and 2) fire five shots into the two decedents, after a single punch was thrown outside the restaurant, met the requirements for SYG immunity,” Judge Vance E. Salter wrote in his dissent.

“One was the trial judge who actually heard and observed thirteen witnesses under oath and subjected to cross-examination. This court was of course required to conduct its review of the testimony by reading it and without observing the witnesses as they testified.”

Salter wrote, “Simply stated, the justifiability of this defendant’s use of force, or of a hypothetical ‘reasonably prudent person’s’ use of force, turns on a fact dependent on the defendant’s credibility.”

To be clear. I’m not declaring Mobley guilty of anything. Neither was Judge Rebull nor Judge Salter. They simply would have left it to a jury to weigh the defendant’s credibility and consider the bothersome evidence that led Miami-Dade police and prosecutors to charge Mobley with two counts of second-degree murder. In the days before Stand Your Ground, his self-defense claim would have been tested against the common sense of six local citizens.

Instead, we got an opinion Thursday that attempted to explain how the two-judge majority could worm their way into the shooter’s mind simply by perusing the SYG hearing transcripts. The judges decided these killings were justified by projecting whether, “based on circumstances as they appeared to the defendant”, a reasonable and prudent person, “knowing what the defendant knew,” would have used the same force.

Judge Wells claimed that the “standard to be applied” was “not a subjective standard as to the defendant’s state of mind but an objective standard as to a reasonably prudent person’s state of mind.” What any of us reasonable and prudent folks might do, say, after an altercation at a Chili’s Bar & Grill, hanging out in the parking lot, faced with two unarmed men, with a loaded Glock hidden beneath our sweatshirt.

Relatives of Jason Jesus Gonzalez and Rolando Carrazana ought to have Judge Well’s abstruse rationale carved into the dead men’s tombstones, epitaphs to explain why there will be no retribution for these two homicides. Not even a trial. Because Gabriel Mobley stood his (killing) ground.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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