Commentary: The troubling history of stand-your-ground laws

The Miami HeraldMarch 26, 2012 

The killing of Trayvon Martin was only the most infamous Florida homicide complicated by the legal inanity known as “Stand Your Ground.”

Police in Sanford, maddeningly hesitant in their dealings with the 28-year-old neighborhood watch zealot who shot young Martin, have been widely disparaged for citing the 2005 Florida statute that grotesquely altered the doctrine of self-defense.

But just last week, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beth Bloom bolstered the Sanford cops’ contention that state law now trumps common sense. She sprang another stand-your-ground killer.

Stand Your Ground, the way the law has been interpreted, has proven to be a wild misnomer. Like Trayvon Martin, Pedro Roteta was pursued down a city street by his killer.

On Jan. 25, Roteta had apparently been trying to steal the radio from a truck owned by Greyston Garcia, parked outside his apartment in southwest Miami. Truck burglary’s a crime of course, but not a capital case. Not before 2005.

Garcia grabbed a large knife and chased the 26-year-old Roteta down the block. He caught up with Roteta, who was unarmed except for an unopened pocketknife in his pocket, and stabbed him to death. The confrontation was captured on a surveillance video.

Miami police were not nearly as cautious as the cops in Sanford. Garcia was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. But under the peculiarities of the stand-your-ground statute, the case never went to trial. Judge Bloom decided Wednesday that Garcia was immune from prosecution.

This aspect of the law drives prosecutors to distraction. The Florida Supreme Court, trying to sort out the ineptly written law (a piece of boilerplate legislation contrived by the NRA) ruled that the immunity conferred by stand-your-ground was for a judge, not a jury, to decide. Judge Bloom decided, under the squishy language of the statute, that Garcia “reasonably believed it is necessary” to use deadly force “to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

“We believe this is a determination best made by a jury,” said Ed Griffith, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, in a bit of understatement. Prosecutors were stunned by the judge’s ruling. So was Miami police Sgt. Ervens Ford, who headed up the homicide investigation. He told The Herald’s David Ovalle that Judge Bloom’s decision was a “travesty of justice.”

Travesties of the Stand Your Ground kind keep adding up. At mid-afternoon on Aug. 11, 2009, a black Maxima chased a beige Infiniti at harrowing speeds down Old Cutler Road. Other cars veered off the road. One innocent motorist was sideswiped before the Infiniti crashed into a clump of bushes, the rear window blasted out, bullet holes in the trunk, spent cartridges littering the interior.

The driver of the Infiniti, Sujaye E. Henry, 26, was killed, slumped over the steering wheel, two bullet wounds in the shoulder, a third through his left eye socket. Here was a homicide brought on by reckless gunfire on a city street, spawned by a dispute over a drug deal. There was a time when Anthony Gonzalez Jr., 31, aka “White Boy,” a passenger in the pursing Maxima and the gunman who fired the fatal shot, might have faced harsh consequences.

The case never went to trial. Gonzalez, after all, as he fired away from the passenger seat, was acting under the permissive parameters of the Stand Your Ground doctrine.

Stand Your Ground preempted any thought of prosecuting a former Broward County deputy sheriff who pumped four rounds into an aggressive panhandler outside a Miami Lakes ice cream parlor in January. The month before, Broward Circuit Judge Ilona Holmes bypassed a jury and acquitted Nour Badi Jarkas, 54, of Plantation, who had shot his estranged wife’s boyfriend four times inside her house in 2009. Judge Holmes cited Stand Your Ground, saying, “nothing was presented ... to rebut the reasonableness of the fear that [Jarkas] testified that he had.”

In 2009, after two FPL workers, in their blue shirts and pith helmets, approached Ernesto Che Vino’s mobile home in Northwest Miami-Dade to shut off the juice, Vino came storming out of the house with his rifle, cuffing one of the workers on the head then firing shots as the two ran for their truck. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge John W. Thornton, “following the dictates of Stand Your Ground,” decided that Vino’s claim that he feared for his life was not unreasonable. He tossed two counts of armed assault and one count of improper exhibition of a firearm.

Essentially, the law requires a judge to read the mind of any assailant who claims self-defense, no matter how outrageous the circumstances. Jurors, of course, would do a fine job of sorting out truly reasonable fears from all this hokum. No mind reading required.

It’s not as if prior to 2005 prosecutors were ringing up convictions on innocent self-defense claimants. In 1986, in South Florida’s most famous case of self-defence, a Miami-Dade grand jury refused to indict Prentice Rasheed, a crime-weary Overtown merchant who had booby-trapped his shop windows and managed to electrocute a burglar. Rather than a criminal defendant, Rasheed became a local folk hero.

Not was there a public outcry to loosen the definition of self defense back in 2005. The law was just another of a series of overreaching and dangerous statutes passed in homage to the National Rifle Association. Some 23 other states have passed variations of Stand Your Ground. The NRA is pushing the law in other states, but perhaps the Trayvon Martin tragedy will slow the gun lobby’s momentum.

The handling of that case, so far, has been a travesty. But the resolution of the Pedro Roteta killing, where the police moved aggressively, was also a travesty.

Sanford police have caught hell for failing to bring charges against shooter George Zimmerman. They have been castigated by civil rights leaders and state and national politicians. Caricatured in the international media. Taunted by protest marchers. Yet, for all their fumbling, when they cite Stand Your Ground, there’s plenty of precedent in Florida that says, sadly, no matter how outrageous, criminal charges just might prove futile.

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