USA TODAY, June 12, 2012
By Yamiche Alcindor
LONGWOOD, Fla. – The parents of Trayvon Martin say people who initiate confrontations should not be allowed to invoke stand-your-ground laws, which permit using deadly force against those who pose a risk of killing or seriously injuring someone.
Testifying Tuesday before the Florida Citizen Safety and Protection task force that Gov. Rick Scott established to review the state’s stand-your-ground law, Trayvon’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, said the law should be amended. They and a coalition group presented the task force with 340,000 signatures asking that the law be changed to exclude those who initiate confrontations.
“This law gives you the right to basically be a vigilante,” Tracy Martin said. “Too many innocent lives are being taken. All we ask is that you review these laws and fix these laws and let them apply to someone who is literally in danger.”
Trayvon was killed Feb. 26 during a confrontation with neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who awaits trial on a second-degree murder charge in connection with the case.
Zimmerman, 28, a Hispanic, has said he shot Trayvon in self-defense after being attacked and pleaded not guilty. He has been jailed since June 3, when Judge Kenneth Lester revoked his bond for failing to disclose his finances. Zimmerman is scheduled for another bond hearing June 29.
Police initially did not charge Zimmerman with a crime, citing the stand-your-ground law, under which a person does not have to retreat in the face of a threat and can use deadly force if fearing danger of death or serious harm.
Fulton, moments before speaking to the task force, told USA TODAY she hopes lawmakers will look into possibly changing how the law applies to minors and how confrontations start.
“I’m not against the Second Amendment,” she said. “I grew up with a gun in my household. We have to take a look at stand-your-ground and look at what’s happening. If this law isn’t amended, more people will be killed, and I don’t think that’s the intention.”
About 200 people came to Northland Church for the hearing, where the mood was occasionally emotional but largely calm and quiet. Several, such as Trayvon’s parents, spoke about losing loved ones or about being attacked themselves. Some said stand-your-ground helped them defend themselves against robbers and other aggressors.
Deborrah Peoples came from Tampa. She said her son, Chyvas Peoples, 32, is serving 30 years for killing a man who attacked him. She said he should have been let go because of stand-your-ground. “I really hope to gain knowledge of who benefits from this and how the law applies,” Peoples said. “I’m in favor of the law, but I want it to be applied equally for all people.”
Dennis Burgess, 43, a real estate agent from Apopka, Fla., testified that he favors keeping the stand-your-ground law as is and said it ensures people can defend themselves in all situations.
“The decision that someone is making is a heat of the moment decision,” Burgess said. “You can’t legislate how someone should act in each individual circumstance.”
The stand-your-ground law has wrongly become an emotional and political issue, Burgess said. “I don’t see anything better,” Burgess said. “The Sanford police made the decision, and folks want to say they were wrong.”
The stand-your-ground law has “significantly expanded those situations” where an individual is allowed to defended himself using force, Krista Marx, a Florida 15th Judicial Circuit judge, told the task force.
Marx discussed several cases where defendants successfully and unsuccessfully invoked the law and quizzed task force members about whether they thought the law should apply.
Wrapping up her presentation, Marx said trying to get stand-your-ground laws to be uniformly applied will be challenging because of juries. She described cases where two juries heard the same facts and came to different conclusions.
Task force members questioned how police officers determine probable cause and how they determine whether someone can use the stand-your-ground law. They explained that the law says a person can’t use the law if engaged in an unlawful activity but says little about initiating confrontations.
The task force includes law enforcement officers, politicians and community leaders. It plans several other meetings across the state after the national uproar over Trayvon’s death.
“We have a lot of work to do,” said Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who chairs the task force. “What we need to do is move forward and bring some clarity to this law.”
After hearing from residents and experts on stand-your-ground cases, the task force will prepare a report for Scott and the Florida Legislature. In doing so, officials hope to balance individual rights and public safety, Carroll said.
Trayvon’s parents and members of the Second Chance on Shoot First campaign, a coalition that includes New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the NAACP and the National Urban League, hope the signatures they delivered will show that people across the nation want to see change.
“It’s overwhelming to know that our son was sacrificed for this movement to take place and for people to look at these laws,” Tracy Martin told USA TODAY. “This isn’t about white Americans, black Americans, or Asian Americans. This law doesn’t just affect African Americans. It affects the whole nation.”
Contributing: Gary Strauss in McLean, Va.