Two years after Trayvon Martin's death, Florida's "stand your ground" law remains a flash point in a still unsettled national debate over the limits of self-defense.
After a Jacksonville jury this month failed to decide whether Michael Dunn murdered 17-year-old Jordan Davis, the same questions about the law surfaced anew:
Is it too vague or too confusing? Is it being applied as the Legislature intended? And what role did it play in George Zimmerman's acquittal and Dunn's partially hung jury?
As lawmakers prepare to begin their springtime session, the head of a key committee has vowed not to change "one damn comma."
But others — including the law's author and Zimmerman's former attorney — have suggested it could use some tweaking.
And like Trayvon's parents before them, Jordan Davis' parents have vowed to seek changes to what they say is a flawed self-defense law in Florida.
Though Zimmerman claimed he shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in self-defense Feb. 26, 2012, his defense lawyer consistently disputed the notion he was using a "stand your ground" defense.
Attorney Mark O'Mara's contended that Zimmerman was being pummeled when he opened fire, and had no option to retreat. A debate was born: Was Zimmerman's a "stand your ground" case or one of traditional self-defense?
O'Mara says that true "stand your ground" cases — in which the shooter could retreat but doesn't — represent "an overwhelmingly small percentage" of self-defense cases: "The minuscule exception was defining the terminology."
But Zimmerman's jury instructions contained some key language: that he "had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground" if he "reasonably believed" it was necessary to prevent great bodily harm or death.
The same language appeared in the instructions for Dunn's jury, which failed to reach a verdict on a first-degree-murder charge for 17-year-old Jordan Davis' killing, though Dunn was convicted on three attempted-murder charges for firing 10 shots into the teen's SUV at a gas station.
Last week, O'Mara proposed a change: Remove the "stand your ground" language from the standard self-defense instructions, and include it only in cases in which the facts fit that scenario.
O'Mara says he doesn't think the Zimmerman verdict would have been different without that language, but for those who disagree, "there is an easy fix that makes a lot of sense."
Bill Sheaffer, legal analyst for WFTV-Channel 9, agrees: "I always thought it was unnecessary language in the self-defense statute ... if anything, it may lead to confusion of the issues."
The potential for confusion is a common criticism of "stand your ground" and Florida's self-defense laws generally.
For example: What is reasonable fear? Jurors are told that the danger doesn't even have to be "actual" for a defendant's use of force to be justified.
Dunn claimed he saw a gun before opening fire, but none was found. Even if there was no gun — no "actual" danger — were his actions reasonable if he believed there was one?
"The problem becomes when you have a reasonable fear, but that fear, though maybe reasonable, turns out to be inaccurate," O'Mara said. "Now what do you do?"
Critics of the law also say that black youths, such as Trayvon and Jordan, are disproportionately the victims of gunfire that their shooters later claim was justified by "reasonable" fear.
The first Dunn juror to speak publicly, a woman identified as Valerie, said race didn't play a role in the debate inside the jury room, which ended with jurors hung at 9-3 on the murder count:
"[The instructions] said if he believed that he had an imminent threat to himself or his fiancée ... he was frightened, and there was no other option for him in regards to Mr. Davis," the juror told ABC News.
The burden at trial is on the state, which forces prosecutors in these cases to prove a negative: They must establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense.
'A little more direction'
Despite widespread outcry and national scrutiny, efforts to repeal "stand your ground" have been dead on arrival.
House Criminal Justice Subcommittee Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, attracted national headlines when he said he doesn't want to change "one damn comma" in the law.
But legislation from Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, and Sen. David Simmons, the Altamonte Springs Republican who sponsored the original "stand your ground" law in 2005, aims to tighten the law's language to make it more difficult for aggressors to claim self-defense.
The bill is currently in the committee phase. Smith says he's optimistic it will progress.
"What we're trying to do is just give those juries a little more direction to go on," Smith said. Too many people see "stand your ground" as a justification "to escalate disagreements ... to unreasonably just resort to violence," he said.
Sheaffer said it's a mentality that harks back to an earlier time:
"What we're having is ... a rebirth of a culture that is the Wild West, where you shoot first and you ask questions later, [and] dispute resolution is reduced to use of a firearm," he said.
In another recent Florida case to gain national attention, retired Tampa policeman Curtis Reeves Jr. is accused of killing another patron at a Pasco County movie theater after being hit with popcorn during an argument over texting.
Lawmakers who support "stand your ground" often say that its language is not the issue; the law is being applied in ways that were never intended, they say.
These high-profile cases, be they "stand your ground" or "traditional" self-defense, seem increasingly to stretch the bounds of the law, Sheaffer said.
"Lawyers do what lawyers are born and bred to do," he said. "They test the elasticity of these statutes — to the point of breaking."
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