State Bill Would Make It Easier to Claim "Stand Your Ground"

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law has led to a massive, demonstrable increase in statewide homicides since 2005. JAMA's November study framed the law as a clear threat to public health: Homicides were actually decreasing, on average, until the law — which lets Floridians kill in self-defense even if they themselves started the fight — took effect. The law has also been decried as racist, after George Zimmerman walked free after fatally shooting Miami teen Trayvon Martin in 2012.

Now a Florida senator wants to make it even easier to claim Stand Your Ground.

Earlier this month, state Sen. Rob Bradley, a Panhandle Republican, proposed SB 128, a bill that would place the burden of proof in Stand Your Ground cases on the person who was shot rather than the person who pulled the trigger.

In other words: If you claim you were "standing your ground," courts would have to take you at your word, and it would be up to the person with a bullet hole in him to prove you weren't defending yourself — assuming he's still alive to make the case. That's a massive legal distinction.

If passed, the bill says prosecutors will have to prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" that Stand Your Ground can't be claimed, or else they'll be forced to let defendants walk free. That's especially difficult in cases where only two parties were involved in an altercation — and even more if one of those people died.

"We have an obligation to zealously guard the protections granted us all in the Constitution,” Bradley said in a December 8 news release about the bill.

In 2014, the United Nations asked U.S. states to "remove far-reaching immunity" in stand-your-ground laws, decrying them as racially discriminatory. But Florida lawmakers apparently disagree with the UN.

Bradley is hellbent on righting what he sees to be an injustice committed on the public by the Florida Supreme Court in 2015. That year, the court ruled in Brethrick v. State that defendants who said they were "standing their ground" had to prove they were defending themselves if they wanted to invoke the law. In that case, Jared Brethrick was simply sitting at a red light in Osceola County when he "perceived a threat" from the car in front of him and decided to hold that car hostage via gunpoint. Brethrick tried to claim he was standing his ground, but the court ruled he had to first prove it.

His case was then kicked out.

In his release, Bradley said all Floridians "understood intuitively" that the court had ruled incorrectly in Brethrick. Bradley openly calls this a "misinterpretation" of self-defense law and has spent the past two years fighting to reverse the Supreme Court's decision.

This is the second time Bradley has proposed the law: The bill passed in the state Senate last year but died in a House committee.

In case it still isn't clear why a bill like Bradley's would make it more difficult to prosecute murderers, take a look at the nation's most famous stand-your-ground case — the Trayvon Martin verdict. There were only two witnesses to the scuffle between Martin and Zimmerman, and one of them (hint: Martin) ended up shot to death. Without any other witnesses to testify about what happened that night, courts would almost certainly be forced to take a man like Zimmerman at his word.

(Zimmerman walked free anyway, but that's another story.)

According to the American Bar Association, defendants often win stand-your-ground cases simply due to race: People who kill black victims have their cases dismissed around 70 percent of the time, but only 50 percent of the time if they kill whites, a 2015 Bar Assocation report said. The Association cited four respected studies (two from major universities; one from a Washington, D.C. think tank; and another from the Tampa Bay Times), which all found that the law either increased rates of violence or exacerbated racial tensions.

The Bar Association said stand-your-ground laws were applied unevenly and unpredictably, and almost always were applied to benefit white defendants. For example: Jacksonville's Melissa Alexander, a black woman, was not allowed to invoke Stand Your Ground after firing a warning shot that hit nobody. She was sent to prison. But Peter Peraza, a Broward Sheriff's Office deputy, was allowed to use the law earlier this year after he killed an unarmed man carrying an unloaded air rifle while Peraza was on duty.

The American Bar Association flatly said states should not enact similar laws.

"An individual’s right to self-defense was sufficiently protected prior to Stand Your Ground laws," the report stated.

Here's the bill's full text:

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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.