By Henry Pierson Curtis, The Orlando Sentinel –
ORLANDO, Fla. — Police in Sanford let George Zimmerman go home after he shot and killed Trayvon Martin last month, but Central Florida police agencies routinely make arrests for murder in “stand your ground” cases — and then let courts decide if a killing is justified.
Passage of Florida’s landmark self-defense law in October 2005 caused initial confusion, but court records show police and prosecutors now file charges more often than not.
Central Florida’s “stand your ground” claimants already in prison or awaiting trial range from an off-duty security guard to a retired Orlando police officer, bar patrons and a man who chopped off his cousin’s hand with a machete.
Those and many other cases headed for trial share a common factor: witnesses willing to testify.
In January 2011, 15 to 20 people were nearby when Chad Bekari Smith claimed two men shot at him outside an Orlando gas station. A security guard and father of three, Smith drew his licensed pistol, wounded both men, called 911 on his cellphone and waited for police to arrive, according to his arrest report.
“I was going to lose my life, so I reacted and defended my life,” Smith, then 23, told his lawyer, according to court records.
But police did not believe him. Nor did a jury that convicted Smith last fall of two counts of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. His conviction and 20-year prison sentence are under appeal.
Unlike that case, there were no known eyewitnesses when Trayvon died Feb. 26 in a confrontation with Zimmerman inside the gated Retreat at Twin Lakes neighborhood. The teen was walking back from a 7-Eleven when he was followed by Zimmerman, 28, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer who fired a single shot and later told police Trayvon attacked him, records show.
That’s the hardest type of case for prosecutors.
When the alleged aggressor is dead and there are no witnesses, “it is harder to disprove or to prove beyond a reasonable doubt” that the shooter claiming self-defense faced a credible threat, according to Randy Means, chief investigator and spokesman for the Orange-Osceola State Attorney’s Office.
“Since very little case law exists, all we have to go on is our interpretation of the statute. It’s too new for us to use case law effectively,” Means said. “It is frustrating for the charging prosecutors.”
And prosecutors continue to decline to charge shooters in obvious cases of self-defense, records show.
That’s what happened June 22, 2006, when 25-year-old Antoine Jones kicked in the door of the master bedroom in his mother’s Orange County home with a butcher knife in his hand. An ex-convict, Jones had been drinking all day and threatened to stab her boyfriend — Sylvester Andrews III — and two daughters from their marriages.
The State Attorney’s Office would not prosecute 39-year-old Andrews for firing a fatal shotgun blast to protect the girls and himself, records show.
The decision on whether Zimmerman will be charged with murder, manslaughter or exonerated for killing 17-year-old Martin will be made by Seminole-Brevard State Attorney Norm Wolfinger, who joined other prosecutors in lobbying against passage of “stand your ground” six years ago.
Wolfinger would not discuss his opinion of the self-defense law while Martin’s death remains under investigation pending a grand-jury review next month.
But three years ago, Wolfinger’s top assistant spoke with the Orlando Sentinel about the office’s concerns about the law.
“The intent was for somebody to be able to protect themselves, not to take justice into their own hands,” Wayne Holmes, Wolfinger’s chief of staff, said in a 2009 interview. “We’re going to have to watch it play out over time. … The thing that makes it serious is that people are being harmed or killed.”
Opposition to the law is common among prosecutors.
Under Florida’s “stand your ground” law, anyone who kills someone after reasonably believing that person posed a deadly threat is immune from criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits.
In such situations, “a law enforcement agency may use standard procedures for investigating the use of force … but the agency may not arrest the person for using force unless it determines that there is probable cause that the force that was used was unlawful.”
Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee referred to that statute earlier this month when he announced his department did not find probable cause to arrest Zimmerman.