Confusion reigns over Florida's 'Stand Your Ground' law

Miami HeraldDecember 28, 2009 

MIAMI — No one disputes that Maurice Moorer fired more than a dozen bullets to kill a rival sitting in a car in Miami's West Little River neighborhood last year.

Moorer claimed self-defense. Police detectives begged to differ.

But prosecutors say they were forced to drop a murder charge against Moorer because of the controversial 2005 "Stand Your Ground'' self-defense law that broadened a citizen's ability to use deadly force.

"There is no law now that we can point to say Moorer should have backed off, that he should have avoided this,'' said Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Kathleen Hoague, who says the new law "cheapens human life.''

Moorer's case marked the first time Miami-Dade prosecutors dropped a charge because of the statute, and occurred as police, lawyers and courts across Florida struggle to apply what many say is a vaguely defined law.

The statute eliminated a citizen's duty to retreat from a deadly threat and bestowed "immunity'' on people protecting themselves with lethal force.

Legislators said the law was necessary to give law-abiding citizens more rights to protect themselves outside their home. But critics say the law encourages vigilantism and provides cover for unjustified violence.

Lawyers say the statute is befuddling.

"The law has created a massive amount of confusion as to what exactly constitutes self-defense and exactly how to apply the new law,'' said defense attorney Bill Mathewman, who hopes the Florida Supreme Court will grant immunity to a client currently facing trial for aggravated assault in Palm Beach County.

Ultimately, because the law isn't specific and state appeals courts can't agree, the Florida Supreme Court will have to iron out how judges grant immunity and under what standard of proof.

Already, the First and Fourth District Courts of Appeal have issued conflicting rulings on how the Stand Your Ground should be applied.

The Fourth District panel upheld a trial judge's decision to deny immunity to Ricardo Velasquez, clearing the way for Broward prosecutors to take the attempted murder case to trial. Velasquez, who claimed self-defense for his role in a Hollywood knife fight, eventually pleaded guilty.

Ralph Behr, Velasquez's attorney, said lawmakers need to sharpen the language of the law.

In Miami-Dade, the law has or will take center stage in several high-profile cases.

In April, a judge denied immunity to a New York partygoer who fatally stabbed a homeless man in a South Beach alley. Lawyers for Nadim Yaquibe, 21, had argued the youth was acting in self-defense when he killed Roberto Camacho, 50, who was unarmed but had threatened to kill Yaquibe.

Circuit Judge Daryl Trawick did, however, reduce a second-degree murder charge to manslaughter. Both sides are appealing.

Another defendant, Damon Darling, 24, was accused of murder after he got into a gunfight with a rival in the courtyard of a Liberty City housing project, killing 9-year-old Sherdavia Jenkins in the crossfire.

Darling's attorney had argued that Darling had to fire first or his attacker would have shot him. But prosecutors had a strong response: Darling was a convicted felon, meaning he couldn't possess a weapon.

A Stand Your Ground motion to grant immunity failed. At trial, jurors found Darling guilty of manslaughter with a deadly weapon. Last week, he was sentenced to 50 years in prison.


Another self-defense case under close watch is that of Gabriel Mobley, 33. In February 2008, Mobley shot and killed two unarmed men, one of whom had punched a friend outside Chili's Grill & Bar near Miami Lakes. Mobley holds a lawful concealed weapons permit.

Initially, Mobley told detectives he did not shoot one of the men, and shot the other because the man was "reaching for something under his shirt. He did not see any weapons but he believed he was reaching for one,'' an arrest warrant reads.

But prosecutors said video surveillance showed Mobley shooting both men, and one man had his hands "raised and free from any objects or weapons.''

He is charged with two counts of second-degree murder.

Mobley's lawyer, Richard Della Ferra, filed a motion to dismiss last month, saying Mobley "had the statutory authority to defend himself'' under the Stand Your Ground law. A judge has yet to rule.

Miami-Dade prosecutors believe they will win the challenge -- as they have several other times since the law was enacted. But they had no such illusions in Moorer's case.

In May 2008, Maurice Moorer, 25, shot and killed his ex-wife's new lover, Eddy Moore, after a dispute that started earlier in the day at Moore's house.

When Moore was killed, he was sitting in his car outside Moorer's house. Miami-Dade police said Moorer had egged his rival on, luring him to his house, then walked out armed with a handgun.

But Moorer claimed he fired -- some 15 shots -- because Moore had been threatening him and might have been reaching for a weapon, defense lawyers Terry Lenamon and Kenneth Swartz say.

Police found a handgun in the car, but hidden underneath a pile of laundry in the back seat.

"Maurice was going out to try and prevent what could have been a drive-by shooting, or harm to his family,'' Lenamon said.

Moore's sister, Broward Sheriff's Office detention deputy Tabitha Person, believes her brother was trying to escape. She says the 2005 law makes no sense.

``We felt like if this was put in front of a 12-person jury, they would see Maurice planned to do this,'' she said. ``This is just giving people the license they need to get away with cold-blooded murder.''

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