Stand Your Ground debated in Tampa

If Trayvon Martin had beaten up and killed George Zimmerman during their fateful encounter two years ago, he probably would have been charged with two counts of aggravated burglary. 

That was the opinion expressed on Friday by Mark O'Mara, Zimmerman's attorney for his 2013 trial, referring to the fact that his client had suffered injuries to his nose and the back of his head during his confrontation with Martin before Zimmerman pulled out his gun and shot and killed the 17-year-old black teenager. Could Martin have used a "stand your ground" defense if the tables were turned and he shot and killed Zimmerman? "Without question, Trayvon Martin would have had a stand your ground, or self-defense argument," he  told the Tampa Tiger Bay Club audience. "The question is: What facts would have supported it? And it's those last 10-15 seconds when both parties have the opportunity to run away [that matter]."

O'Mara made those comments at Maestro's at the Straz Center, as the "stand your ground" law was discussed in a lively 90-minute forum featuring the criminal defense attorney, Tampa Bay Times reporter Ben Montgomery — who wrote a series of articles about the law in 2012 — and Julianne Holt, Hillsborough County Public Defender. 

The man who was the bill's sponsor in the Florida House, Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala), was also scheduled to be part of the program, but canceled when the funeral for former governor Reuben Askew shifted committee hearings into Friday, preventing him from traveling to Tampa.

Despite the controversy surrounding it, SYG isn't going anywhere in Florida — except to be strengthened. New amendments to the 2005 law passed in the House on Thursday include expanding the "stand your ground" defense to those who fire warning shots to deter potential attacks. The bill also allows for the expunging of records in "stand your ground" cases in which charges are eventually dropped. 

"The Legislature fights you tooth and nail to expunge your records and seal them, and they don't care how many lives they destroy in the past. But on this 'stand your ground'? They're making sure that you get full immunity. Civil and criminal. You get your records expunged," said Holt, who was in Tallahassee on Thursday to observe that debate on the House floor.

She complained that other people arrested in the past for crimes that "we should seal or expunge" aren't being considered at all by the Legislature, but when it comes to SYG, legislators will seemingly do whatever is possible to protect those who kill in that law's name. "So equal protection, due process, is not alive and well," she said with disdain.

Not surprisingly, Montgomery disagreed with protecting the public records of those who are exonerated by using a "stand your ground" defense. "I can't imagine them trying to hide all these records," adding if you take another life, justly or not, "there should be a record of that." (the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters on Friday wrote a blog post quoting editors from the Times and other Florida newspapers decrying the proposed amendment as well).

O'Mara then asked Montgomery if that should be the case for military veterans who kill in a foreign war?

Montgomery said the attorney was making an apples-versus-oranges argument. "Let's talk about killing another human being on American soil."

The panelists were asked if the law was racist, something that O'Mara strongly objected to, saying that petty theft or crack cocaine laws on the surface aren't racist either, but do carry disproportionate racial effects. "But when you have a whole system that is skewed, you can't say the statute is racist ... it's the system. The system is biased, you can't deny that. That's where the focus needs to be."

Despite calls by Democrats and activist groups to repeal and substantially revamp the law, Hillsborough County's Holt says part of living in Florida in 2014 is having to accept the fact that people love their guns. "I urge each of you how to deal with that in educating your family members and things because there's a tremendously different impression given of our community." As a public defender who sometimes represents unsavory types — who she says once in awhile want to kill her — she refuses to carry a gun. "I just don't want to live my life thinking that when I get pissed at somebody. Like that judge who rules against me over and over again," she said jokingly.

Susan Smith, head of the Democratic Party's Progressive Caucus, asked the three panelists if they were legislators and weren't pressured by the NRA, what would they do with the gun laws to keep Floridians safe?

O'Mara talked about how violent America was, citing statistics on death-penalty executions and the number of deaths by guns. "I don't think the founding fathers thought that 200-300 years into the future we should ever carry assault weapons and wipe out 20 kids in kindergarten."

Montgomery said "we've gone overboard a little bit," and fumbling for a proper metaphor, simply ended with  "love your neighbor."

Holt said obstacles to better regulation of guns and the easy access to them were troubling, but added that "does not in any way trump the Second Amendment."

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