Fla.'s 'Stand Your Ground' Law Protects People with Violent Pasts
Published: Wednesday, August 1, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, August 1, 2012 15:08
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."