The parents of slain teen Trayvon Martin asked the state task force reviewing Florida’s controversial self-defense law to revise it and make it harder for someone who starts a fight to end it with deadly force.
They call their proposed revision “The Trayvon Martin Amendment.”
The Florida Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection held its first public hearing Tuesday near Sanford, the Central Florida town where the unarmed Miami Gardens teenager was gunned down by a man who claimed self defense.
The national fracas the case spawned also triggered a reflection on Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, a 2005 statute that eliminated a person’s duty to retreat when in fear of death or bodily injury. The law exists in some form in 26 states, and although backed by gun owners and a majority of voters, it has been panned for its inconsistent application.
Gov. Rick Scott created the 19-member panel, made up of prosecutors, lawmakers, sheriffs and other interested parties, with the goal of reviewing the state’s self-defense law. The panel has already been criticized for being stacked with lawmakers who favor gun rights, including the legislator who first sponsored the Stand Your Ground law.
Among its members is Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez-Rundle.
At an all-day hearing Tuesday, dozens of widows, grieving mothers, veterans, crime victims and gun owners took the podium to urge the panel to change the law, dump it, or leave it as is. Many speakers urged the panel not to be influenced by politics or the media, and criticized the task force for taking on a case that has yet to be decided by the courts.
Speakers included Trayvon’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, who together with the Second Chance Campaign presented the task force with 375,000 signatures of people who want the law reformed.
“I am not saying get rid of it. Please amend it, review it,” Fulton said, stressing that her father was a Miami police officer who kept a gun in the house. “I do not have anything against weapons. I grew up with a weapon in the house.”
Her attorney, Benjamin Crump, proposed the Trayvon Martin Amendment, saying that, as it stands now, the law encourages aggressors to shoot to kill and not leave any witnesses.
“You cannot initiate a confrontation and then turn around and say you are standing your ground,” Crump said.
At first, Trayvon’s killer, George Zimmerman, was not arrested, because police said the law offers immunity to people who kill in self defense and an arrest would have been illegal. But prosecutors later charged him with second-degree murder.
The law offers immunity to anyone who kills in self defense, but task force member Circuit Judge Krista Marx noted that immunity can only be bestowed by a judge — no matter how the law is worded.
She kicked off the hearing with a presentation of cases where Stand Your Ground was used, and different ways the laws has caused problems for law enforcement because of imprecise wording.
The law applies only to a person who is in a place where he or she has a right to be and is not committing a crime, but the law is unclear on spelling out criminal activity and probably needs to be clarified, the judge said. A provoker should not be able to avail himself of Stand Your Ground, unless the person had no way to escape or had tried to retreat and the attack continued, she added.
Several prosecutors testified that they’ve seen the immunity bestowed on criminals who should not have gone free.
“This law is disgusting and is a license to kill,” said Barbara Standard, whose son Scott was killed in Citrus County by a neighbor who was never charged. “There is no justice in this state.”
The task force is led by Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who opened the session with a briefing for reporters, though her explanation of the law conflicted with its actual provisions.
“We were going through a period of carjackings and home invasions. People didn’t feel they had the right to protect themselves,” Carroll said, explaining the Legislature’s rationale. “We wanted to give citizens the right to protect themselves.”
The former legislator said the law has wrongly been dubbed the “shoot first” law, when “clearly the law says if you have the opportunity to retreat, you should do so.”
However, even before Stand Your Ground, Florida citizens had the right to protect themselves during home invasions. The law extended that right outside the home by eliminating a person’s duty to retreat when faced with imminent threat. The law specifically removes the obligation to retreat, even if an altercation takes place in public.
“The task force is about laws,” Carroll said. “What are the laws, and are they fairly applied? Do they have uniformity? Do they have clarity? Is it understood?”
Several speakers at Tuesday’s hearing spoke in defense of the law, and urged the panel to leave it alone.
“Why would it be my duty to retreat?” said Steve Demoor, who told a story of being attacked in a case of road rage. “I should be allowed to defend myself and my family.”
Carroll said the task force will wrap up its work by March, in time for the next legislative session. The next meeting will be held July 10 in Arcadia.