ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Maurice Moorer is not the kind of person lawmakers had in mind when they gave Florida the broadest self-defense law in the nation in 2005.
State legislators sold “stand your ground” as a legal protection for law-abiding Floridians who were forced, through no fault of their own, to defend their family and property.
But the day Moorer killed his ex-wife’s boyfriend in 2008 capped two years of violent behavior that had landed Moorer in jail multiple times and left his wife living in fear.
Still, prosecutors set Moorer free, saying Florida’s “stand your ground” law prevented them from pursuing murder charges.
A Tampa Bay Times analysis of “stand your ground” cases found that it has been people like Moorer — those with records of crime and violence — who have benefited most from the controversial legislation. A review of arrest records for those involved in more than 100 fatal “stand your ground” cases shows:
. Nearly 60 percent of those who claimed self-defense had been arrested at least once before the day they killed someone.
. More than 30 of those defendants, about one in three, had been accused of violent crimes, including assault, battery or robbery. Dozens had drug offenses on their records.
. Killers have invoked “stand your ground” even after repeated run-ins with the law. Forty percent had three arrests or more. Dozens had at least four arrests.
. More than a third of the defendants had previously been in trouble for threatening someone with a gun or illegally carrying a weapon.
. In dozens of cases, both the defendant and the victim had criminal records, sometimes related to long-running feuds or criminal enterprises. Of the victims that could be identified in state records, 64 percent had at least one arrest. Several had 20 or more arrests.
Florida’s “stand your ground” law has been under intense scrutiny since George Zimmerman claimed self-defense after killing 16-year-old Trayvon Martin at a Sanford apartment complex Feb. 26. Police and prosecutors said they did not immediately charge Zimmerman because they could not disprove his self-defense claim.
All told, 119 people are known to have killed someone and invoked “stand your ground.” Those people have been arrested 327 times in incidents involving violence, property crimes, drugs, weapons or probation violations. That does not include more than 100 traffic violations and other minor arrests not considered in the analysis.
The Times’ background checks relied on Florida Department of Law Enforcement records, which log arrests within the state. The records do not always show when arrests end in conviction, and it is likely that many did not.
And of course, having an arrest record doesn’t mean you give up your right to defend yourself in the future. A person who was guilty of something in the past may be utterly innocent in a different case now.
In some cases examined by the Times, a defendant’s prior arrests occurred years before their fatal confrontation and therefore may reveal nothing about their propensity for trouble. For example, Max Wesley Horn Jr. successfully claimed self-defense after he shot a man during a 2010 dispute in New Port Richey. The arrests on Horn’s record — for battery, larceny and for violating probation — were more than 15 years old.
Steve Romine, a Clearwater defense attorney, said a person’s arrest record may affect their credibility, but that should not disqualify them from claiming “stand your ground.”
“It would be impractical to try and apply the law differently between those who do and don’t have records,” he said. “And frankly, it would be unfair.”
But others say the prevalence of criminals invoking “stand your ground” is evidence of a flawed law.
“The legislators wrote this law envisioning honest assertions of self-defense, not an immunity being seized mostly by criminal defendants trying to lie their way out of a murder,” said Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney from South Florida.
Coffey said the most troubling part about habitual offenders using the law is that their experience may have taught them how to manipulate the system.
“People who’ve been through the legal system are going to be more seasoned to using the law to their advantage,” Coffey said. “And it doesn’t take a master of fiction to write in a few lines of the script to turn a homicide into a stand your ground case.”
When detectives investigate a homicide, they check the arrest record of their suspect as a matter of course.
Having a record can impact how defendants are treated, including how hefty a sentence they face and even how believable they are to police and prosecutors.
“Stand your ground” cases are no different.
The Times analysis found that 67 percent of all defendants who invoked the law went free. For defendants who had at least one arrest, the success rate dropped to 59 percent. Serial law-breakers — those with three or more arrests — walked free only 45 percent of the time.
Even so, killers with repeated run-ins with the law and with violent accusations in their past have successfully claimed “stand your ground” across the state.
. Jackson Fleurimon had been arrested for battery, aggravated assault and drug possession. Witnesses said he was in a beef over drug turf when he shot and killed a man in Orange County in 2009. A judge granted him immunity.
. Tavarious China Smith was a drug dealer with multiple arrests who killed a man during an 2008 argument over drug territory in Manatee County. He claimed self-defense and went free. Less than three years later, he was back in front of prosecutors for a different homicide, this one the result of a shoot-out outside a nightclub. Smith once again went free by claiming “stand your ground.”
. In Tallahassee, Dervaunta Vaughn had been accused of battery at least six times before police arrested him in a gangland shoot-out that left one person dead in March 2009. After Vaughn invoked “stand your ground,” prosecutors struck a plea deal that dropped murder charges and sent Vaughn to prison for eight years for illegally carrying a gun.
. Alexander Lopez-Lima’s run-ins with the law began two days after his 15th birthday. His half-dozen arrests include battery, selling and possessing marijuana and strong arm robbery, court records show. In 2011 a judge decided the then-18-year-old Lopez-Lima was standing his ground when he wound up in an armed battle and killed another teen who had come to his house to smoke marijuana.
. Norman Borden, a now-deceased West Palm Beach man, racked up arrests for criminal mischief, disorderly conduct and aggravated assault in the 1980s and ’90s before he was acquitted of murder in the deaths of two men who threatened him with bats while he walked his dog.
And then there’s Maurice Moorer.
In almost every way, Moorer was an unlikely candidate to claim “stand your ground.”
He shot an unarmed man. Witnesses disputed his version of events. His victim was dating his ex-wife, a woman he had been fighting with for years.
When police arrested Moorer on murder charges, he had just pumped 14 bullets into his victim’s car from 4 feet away. He then ran inside to change clothes before calling 911.
Moorer’s criminal record raised further questions about the case. Arrest records in the two years leading up to the killing paint a portrait of a volatile husband willing to use violence and guns to intimidate his wife. But Moorer was never convicted of anything.
In October 2006, Moorer’s wife accused him of throwing her on a couch and punching her in the head. She refused treatment, and prosecutors abandoned the domestic battery charge against him.
A year later, the two were separated when Moorer asked his wife to come visit.
He answered the door, shotgun in hand. She told police that when she turned to leave, Moorer fired the gun and called out: “Come stand in my yard and I’ll blow your a- – away.”
Officers arrested Moorer on an aggravated assault charge. In a police report, they noted a previous incident, where Moorer flashed a gun at his wife and told her: “Don’t mess with me. I’ll use this on you.” Prosecutors never went forward with the case.
Two months later, in December 2007, officers caught Moorer speeding and pulled him over. He seemed “overly nervous” as he assured officers he had no weapons with him, Miami-Dade police officers wrote in a report.
As he stepped out of the car, a semiautomatic pistol fell to the ground.
Prosecutors charged Moorer with carrying a concealed weapon and having ammunition while being the subject of a domestic violence injunction — an injunction later lifted by a judge, records show. A few weeks later, prosecutors dropped the charge.
It was six months later that police were called to investigate a homicide outside Moorer’s home.
Moorer told investigators he had argued with Eddy Moore and that he feared the man was going to his car to get a gun, so he unloaded his pistol in self-defense.
Moore was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Police found a gun in Moore’s back seat under some laundry. And frustrated prosecutors ultimately dropped second-degree murder charges after saying they could not disprove Moorer’s self-defense claim.
The new law, prosecutors told the Miami Herald, “cheapens human life.”
“There is no law that we can point to to say Moorer should have backed off, that he should have avoided this,” Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Kathleen Hoague told the newspaper.
Charlie Rose, a Stetson University law professor, said he remembers his students years ago predicting killers with long criminal histories would wind up benefiting from “stand your ground.”
He blames the law’s vague wording.
“Right now it makes it available to everyone regardless of what you did to put yourself in the situation,” he said. “They did not put limitations on who could use it.”
That’s what makes Mary Martell so uncomfortable.
In March 2008, her son Joseph, 34, was shot and killed by Max Wesley Horn Jr. after the annual Chasco Fiesta in New Port Richey.
Horn told authorities Joseph Martell had threatened a family member, so he shot him six times. A judge denied his “stand your ground” motion, but a jury acquitted him in the killing.
Records show Horn has a criminal arrest record that included aggravated battery and larceny in the 1980s. Details of the cases weren’t available, and Horn was never adjudicated guilty.
Mary Martell said she was shocked to learn that Horn was still able to get a concealed weapons permit.
“Your common person doesn’t normally carry a gun around with them,” she said. “Carrying a gun on your hip at a family event . it’s almost like you’re looking for trouble.”
Rose, the law professor, said “stand your ground” needs fixing.
“I think a reworking of the statute would be to the benefit of the criminal justice system in Florida,” he said. “It’s a fascinating combination of good intentions, bad politics and bad legislative drafting. This particular statute has a lot to do with the right to bear arms and not a lot to do with self-defense.”
Said Mary Martell: “Losing your son is a punch in the gut. Having the man walk free is a slap in the face.
“People who’ve had brushes with the law or people who’ve been in trouble are more streetwise. They’re more inclined to use this law, to hide behind it, and abuse this law.”