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Monday, Oct 20, 2014
Commentary

‘Stand your ground’ isn’t the problem — and special session isn’t the answer

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I spent the greater part of early July glued to the televised George Zimmerman trial. And, just like many others, I had preconceived notions of what the outcome should be.

The only story being told was that of an innocent kid who — unarmed and minding his own business while walking home from the store — was shot in cold blood by a wannabe cop stalking him. It’s not surprising that my initial reaction, based on emotion and sympathy for the family of the black teen, was that Zimmerman was guilty of some degree of murder or manslaughter.

Initially, it seemed inconceivable that Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, had not been charged in some way with Trayvon Martin’s death last February in Sanford. Public sentiment grew, and cries for an arrest became louder.

Despite the ongoing investigation that appeared to support Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense, Gov. Rick Scott bowed to political pressure and intervened by appointing State Attorney Angela Corey as special prosecutor in the case.

Corey made several mistakes. First, in an effort to appease those demanding a quick indictment, she chose to forego a grand jury investigation and charged Zimmerman through her office. And despite scant evidence to prove her case “beyond a reasonable doubt,” she charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder. Not only would she need to show that he acted with a “depraved mind,” but she would have to overcome the tough affirmative offense of self-defense.

In our justice system, a defendant is considered innocent until proven guilty. This concept is one we all should embrace, as it affords us protections against false claims and imprisonment. It also limits the ability of those in power to inflict their will on those who are powerless.

Trials aren’t about emotion or political pressure or sympathy for the families. They must be about facts and evidence and adhering to the laws, rules and court procedures.

It soon became clear by the lack of evidence that the state had overcharged. The prosecution started with a weak case, did not present a compelling argument, did not properly prepare witnesses, relied on emotion and, ultimately, did not meet its burden of proof.

Members of the jury, to their credit, followed the jury instructions and returned a not-guilty verdict on both second-degree murder and the lesser-included offense of manslaughter after concluding there was reasonable doubt.

Many were disappointed because the outcome did not fit the narrative they had come to believe, or because they couldn’t come to terms with, the fact that someone could have been shot dead and the shooter did not get convicted. But from a legal standpoint the system worked, and the verdict was just because the prosecution was unable to prove its case based on the evidence, the facts and current laws.

The governor released a short statement basically saying justice was served and that the jury had spoken. Legally, he was correct. But politically, he missed a great opportunity to lead, to begin the healing and to reach out to those who feel that justice was not served.

Those dissatisfied with the verdict are left questioning our laws. One such group, the Dream Defenders, took up residence in the governor’s office demanding changes in our laws.

The governor waited too long to meet with the Defenders, and dismissed them too quickly. They deserved to be listened to and offered a seat at the table to discuss their ideas for the future.

I applaud them for engaging in meaningful political dialogue and seeking action from their governor and their legislature. What is perplexing is that the protesters are focusing on the “stand your ground” law while the Zimmerman acquittal was based on a self-defense claim. In fact, Zimmerman waived his right to a “stand your ground” defense hearing.

Folks on both sides are stoking the fire and contributing to the misinformation.

“Stand your ground” is not the problem. And a special session is not the answer.

The Legislature should announce fall hearings focusing on criminal justice reform that seeks a comprehensive review of the criminal code — including sentencing guidelines, mandatory minimums, jury instruction, standard of proof and judicial discretion.

Our patchwork of new and amended laws has created some potential confusion, conflict and inequities. A thorough review offers a great opportunity for meaningful bipartisan input.

This should be an honest and sincere effort led by open-minded leaders. The hearings should be inclusive of legal professionals, law enforcement and all other interested stakeholders.

A lack of trust and tolerance is the problem, and a sincere effort to listen and be inclusive is the answer.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. Contact her at pdockery@floridavoices.com.

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