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Thu April 5, 2012
Fla. Task Force Examines Stand-Your-Ground Law
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
Martin Luther King was assassinated 44 years ago this week. When people in Miami held a rally to mark that anniversary, local activist Billy Hardemon brought up the killing of another Martin.
BILLY HARDEMON: Two Martins that died too young, Trayvon and Martin Luther King.
INSKEEP: The rally came amid growing pressure to charge a Florida man with the killing of Trayvon Martin. He's the teenager shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. The state attorney is expected soon to decide what to do.
MONTAGNE: A key factor in the case is Florida's Stand Your Ground Law. It allows people who are threatened with bodily harm to use deadly force in self-defense.
NPR's Greg Allen reports from Miami that momentum is growing in Florida to review the law.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Even Florida's Governor, Republican Rick Scott, has said legislators may need to take a look at the Stand Your Ground Law. Scott says he plans to convene a task force to do so, but not until State Attorney Angela Corey completes her investigation.
State Senator Chris Smith says that may not be for a year or more, and waiting is a mistake.
STATE SENATOR CHRIS SMITH: We have a big problem in Florida today. And it's time for leaders to lead and it's time for action.
ALLEN: Smith is the incoming leader of the Democratic minority in the Senate and an African-American. He called unsuccessfully for Governor Scott to immediately convene his task force and order a special session of the legislature to address Stand Your Ground. With those requests going nowhere, Smith has now taken matters into his own hands.
Later today, he's convening his own task force, comprised of state attorneys, judges, public defenders and criminal defense lawyers who will evaluate the law.
SMITH: The Stand Your Ground Law was being used way before Trayvon Martin. And is being misused way after Trayvon Martin. This isn't just about the Martin case. We do not have to wait till a decision on the Martin case.
ALLEN: So now in Florida there could be two competing task forces looking at Stand Your Ground; one already convened by a Democratic senator and one expected to be formed by the Republican governor.
When asked about it, Governor Scott this week avoided commenting directly on Senator Smith's task force and his charges that the Governor has been dragging his feet.
GOVERNOR RICK SCOTT: What you want is, you don't ever want this to happen again. I mean nobody in this state would want it to happen in their family. And so I think everybody is going to look at our task force and it's going to be taken seriously. And you don't know what's going to come out of it. You know, I just don't want this to ever happen again.
ALLEN: The Stand Your Ground Law has been controversial in Florida since it was passed in 2005. At that time, Smith was one of a group of Democrats who tried to stop it in the House. Also working to stop it was the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association. They believed it would make it more difficult to prosecute assault, manslaughter and murder cases. And that's largely proved true.
Scott Sundby, a professor of law at the University of Miami and a member of Senator Smith's task force, says in cases where there's a claim of self-defense, Stand Your Ground placed a bubble of immunity around defendants. Before a jury trial even gets started, a judge must rule whether the defendant is immune from prosecution.
SCOTT SUNDBY: You are seeing prosecutors much more hesitant to bring cases that they would have brought before because of this notion of immunity. It also puts up this extra hurdle before you can get to trial, where trial judges make sort of a pre-trial determination with them as the fact-finder, rather than the jury.
ALLEN: These are all issues State Attorney Angela Corey is undoubtedly weighing as she investigates the Trayvon Martin shooting.
Senator Smith says there's another reason Florida officials should act sooner rather than later in evaluating Stand Your Ground: public perception. In Florida, where tourism is the state's number one industry, that's a dollars and cents proposition. Smith says he's heard from people who say the Trayvon Martin shooting and Florida's Stand Your Ground Law is making them think twice about visiting the state.
He recalls a similar crisis. In 1993, after the shooting death of a German tourist at a rest stop became international news, then-Governor Lawton Chiles took immediate action, ordering 24-hour protection of rest stops.
SMITH: My point is, we reacted then. We didn't wait for the investigation. We didn't wait for, you know, charges. We acted quickly because Florida brand was tarnished at that time. And Florida brand is tarnished right now.
ALLEN: Smith expects the task force will have recommendations for the governor and the legislature. Whether they'll be acted on is another question altogether.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.