Fla. Task Force Examines 'Stand Your Ground' Law

The group was convened by Florida's governor and legislative leaders. The move comes after Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teen, was shot to death by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman. Since the law's passage in 2005, there's been growing concern about the law among police, prosecutors and judges.

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More than two months after the shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, officials in Florida have begun to re-examine the state's Stand Your Ground law. That law allows people who fear for their lives to use lethal force in self-defense. The law was cited as a reason when authorities initially declined to charge George Zimmerman for shooting and killing Trayvon Martin. NPR's Greg Allen reports that a special task force held its first meeting yesterday to consider the law's consequences.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Florida was the first state to pass Stand Your Ground in 2005. And since its passage, there's been growing concern about the law among police, prosecutors and judges. Responding to the public outcry surrounding the Trayvon Martin shooting, Florida Governor Rick Scott convened a task force to look at Stand Your Ground.

Even before the task force met, however, there was skepticism. Critics worried it was loaded with too many people who support the law, including four people who voted for it as state legislators. At the task force's meeting, the chair, Florida Lieutenant Governor Jennifer Carroll, said the critics were wrong.

JENNIFER CARROLL: They have already discounted the task force by saying this task force is tainted, that the task force is less politically balanced than it should be to instill public confidence in its work.

ALLEN: Beside those four legislators, Carroll said, there are 15 other members of the task force, and she said she doesn't know how any of them feel about the Stand Your Ground law. But that soon became clear. Task force member State Representative Dennis Baxley co-sponsored the law. After unsuccessfully trying to broaden the task force's mission, he was reluctantly forced to accept that the group's focus would be on Stand Your Ground.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE DENNIS BAXLEY: But I suggest that we go back to what exactly we were commissioned to do and let's don't let this turn into a trial. Let's let it be what it's supposed to be - a review of citizen safety and protection.

ALLEN: As members of the task force weighed in, it began to look as if concerns that the panel is unbalanced may be unwarranted. Included on the task force are a prosecutor, a judge, a former state Supreme Court justice, and several law enforcement officials. And many had critical things to say about the law.

Under Stand Your Ground, those who successfully claim self-defense in special judicial hearings are immune from arrest and prosecution. Sheriff Larry Ashley, a task force member from Okaloosa County, says that has a chilling effect on law enforcement in cases like the Trayvon Martin shooting.

SHERIFF LARRY ASHLEY: I think one of the law enforcement concerns here - I'm not certain that an arrest wouldn't have been made in this case - but you remove the discretion from law enforcement to make that decision with this immunity hearing requirement.

ALLEN: The Stand Your Ground law was proposed and written in large part by the Florida chapter of the National Rifle Association. The NRA doesn't have a representative on the task force, but it doesn't need to. It's one of the most powerful lobbies in Tallahassee, and few bills pass that it opposes.

There's another constituency for Stand Your Ground that is represented on the task force, and that's criminal defense lawyers. For them, the law has been a boon, in some cases allowing even gang members and drug dealers to escape prosecution by claiming self-defense. Defense attorney Mark Seiden, a task force member, reminded the panel the law was passed to spare reasonable people who act in self-defense the cost and heartache of a lengthy trial.

MARK SEIDEN: Even if the person who committed the shooting wins the trial, their life is unalterably changed. They usually come away from the experience broke financially and broken emotionally. And even if they win, they lose.

ALLEN: The task force will continue to hold public hearings that are likely to be heated. Eventually the panel will develop recommendations for the governor and the legislature. It will be up to the legislature, however, to decide what, if anything, to do with them. That's the same legislature that overwhelmingly voted to pass Stand Your Ground just seven years ago.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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